Middle East: Violence recedes, but volatility persists

Year in Review: Despite a reduction in conflict, politics remain fragile

The death in October of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of Islamic State, in a raid led by United States special forces, made headlines in 2019. On the face of it, the demise of al-Baghdadi reflects a dramatic decline in the significance of Islamic State, also known as Isis, and of the threat it poses.

The past 12 months have seen a sharp reduction in the level of conflict, particularly in Syria and Yemen, compared with previous years, which, in turn, has translated into a dramatically reduced level of threat to Europe. Al-Baghdadi's death and the weakening of the threat from radical and violent Islamism also reflect the consolidation of the Assad regime's position in Syria, with the support of Russia and Iran, and the re-assertion of the control of the Iraqi government over its territory.

Nonetheless, close observers of the region note the persistence of many of the structural conditions that made the emergence of Isis (and other violent groups) possible in Syria, Iraq and elsewhere.

Indeed, notwithstanding the effective "victory" of Assad over his opposition in the Syrian civil war, his regime still does not control all of the territory of the country. This was made evident in the Turkish incursion into northern Syria in October, ostensibly to create a safe haven to which millions of Syrian refugees in Turkey might be returned, but with a clear view also to weakening Kurdish forces to which Ankara has long been hostile.

Nor has the government in neighbouring Iraq been immune to challenge in recent months.

Indeed, despite the reduction in levels of violence, the fragility of the political order in the Middle East has been a key feature of the region in 2019. As we approach, later this year, the 10th anniversary of the outbreak of the anti-regime protests in rural Tunisia which initiated the political upheavals that have characterised the Middle East ever since, popular mobilisation on a massive scale has re-emerged as a threat to regime stability in a range of settings and, as in 2010, to the surprise of most observers.

The starting point for this came in February in Algeria when mass protests broke out in response to the announcement by the 82-year-old president Abdelaziz Bouteflika of his candidacy for a fifth term in an office he had already held for 20 years. The "revolution of smiles" has seen millions of predominantly young people march every Friday since February in a manifestation of discontent that has gone largely unnoticed by the outside world.

The protests forced Bouteflika’s resignation in April, while senior politicians and businessmen linked to the regime have faced trial on corruption charges. However, the fact that presidential elections in December were contested by five candidates, aged between 56 and 75, and all linked to the old order, speaks to the reluctance of the Algerian regime to undertake substantial reform.

Iraq, Lebanon and Israel

Popular mobilisation on a large scale has not been limited to Algeria. In Iraq a series of protests swept the country at the beginning of October in response to government corruption, unemployment and the limited provision of basic services, despite the country’s enormous oil wealth.

As tens of thousands of people took to the streets, the protesters began to call for more far-reaching change – the resignation of the prime minister, new electoral laws and reform of a political system founded on sectarianism. The protesters secured the resignation of the prime minister, following an intervention by the leading Shia cleric in the country, the Grand Ayatollah, Ali al-Sistani, in which he criticised the government.

The protests were, nonetheless, suppressed by the use of violence with over 300 people killed and 8,000 injured. Reports of unidentified militias targeting protesters in Baghdad, and of the involvement of Iran in the security response, suggest limited likelihood of significant concessions on the part of the government in Baghdad.

Lebanon, too, witnessed the eruption of massive and sustained popular protests against corrupt and inefficient governance in October. The announcement of new tax measures prompted the mobilisation of hundreds of thousands of people from different religious and class backgrounds. The protesters accused the country’s political elites of corruption and called for social and economic reforms.

As in Iraq there have been calls for an end to a political system in which power is apportioned along sectarian lines as well as demands for a technocratic government to deal with Lebanon’s deepening financial crisis and to address problems in the provision of basic services such as electricity and water.

On October 29th, the prime minister, Saad Hariri, resigned. However, in a clear indication of the disconnect between the ruling classes and the protest movement, president Michel Aoun suggested that the demonstrators should just go home or emigrate if they didn’t see any “decent” people in Lebanon.

Thus far, there has been no substantial response to the calls for reform despite the remarkable persistence of the young protesters, with fears increasing that the movement will dissipate over time or be co-opted by mainstream parties. Perhaps most unexpected was the outbreak of anti-regime protest in Iran in November.

The announcement by the government in Tehran of an unexpected increase in fuel prices led almost immediately to protests which quickly spread to 21 cities and, according to Iranian officials, involved up to 200,000 people. The regime responded with repression and an internet blackout.

According to the UN, 7,000 people were arrested and over 200 killed in the crackdown that followed. In an apparent acknowledgment of the excessive use of force by the authorities, Iran's Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei, suggested that some of those who died in the middle of the protests could be considered "martyrs".

Lebanon's southern neighbour Israel has not witnessed the same level of public manifestation of discontent. However, it too has been riven with political instability in 2019. Two general elections have proven inconclusive and a third in less than 12 months seems likely in order to make possible the formation of a stable governing coalition.

In the meantime, it would appear that prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s protracted quest to avoid facing corruption charges is doomed. He had hoped to secure passage of a law that would grant him immunity from prosecution. However, in late November, he was charged with bribery, fraud and breach of trust and could serve a lengthy prison sentence, if convicted.

In all of the regional turmoil, Tunisia’s democratic transition, fragile as it may be, continues. Competitive presidential elections in September produced a clear winner when former professor of law, Kais Saied won 77 per cent of the vote, running on an anti-corruption platform against an opponent who campaigned from prison having been arrested on fraud and money-laundering charges.

Later, elections in October produced a highly fractured parliament in which no party won more than 20 per cent of the vote making the construction of a governing coalition challenging. But, despite this, and the low turnout, the holding of multi-party elections for the third time since the uprising of 2010, suggests that the country is further along the path of democratic consolidation than ever before.

Vincent Durac is associate professor in Middle East politics at University College Dublin

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