Spring turns to winter


If there are common threads running through the world turmoil of 2013, notably of its most unstable region, the Middle East, they are perhaps the indications of a political tide turning against Islamism. The movement saw important reverses notably, and in different forms, in Egypt, Iran, Tunisia and Mali. In Turkey too, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s reconciliation of democratic values with Islam was shaken by the summer’s wave of protests.

But it was in Egypt where the Islamists’ Arab Spring gains were most decisively put back. A million took to the streets in June against broken promises, authoritarianism and the sheer incompetence of the Muslim Brotherhood government. The July military overthrow of President Mohammed Morsi, a year in office, and bloody repression of the Brotherhood – more than 1,000 dead – was a gesture of “national reconciliation”, the army claimed. It promised elections, but they are yet to materialise.

It was simply a “coup”, according to Morsi, with justification. The issue caused considerable angst internationally, not least in a US determined to maintain Egypt as a key regional ally. But its continued support for the military is likely to do little to undo perceptions in the region that the US remains less interested in promoting democratic change than halting the advance of Islamism, a view confirmed in the US refusal to assist in toppling the Syrian regime.

Iran’s spring

The surprise June presidential victory in Iran of moderate cleric Hassan Rouhani marked a significant turn against the hardline rule of the clerical establishment. The opening up to the international community has born fruit in an interim agreement curbing Iran’s nuclear programme and there are also important signs of an easing of domestic repression. Observers are hoping that Iran’s new moderation may also help reduce the Sunni-Shia sectarian tensions that have become central features of many regional conflicts.

Compromise has been in short supply in Tunisia since it sparked the Arab Spring two years ago. But in December a political deal between longtime enemies, the Islamists and the secular old guard, is to put in place an independent caretaker government until elections in 2014, the first time Islamists have agreed in the face of rising public anger to step back from power gained at the ballot box. In Mali Islamists were also forced to retreat after France sent in troops at the request of the government.

Syria’s brutal war continues – the death toll now at 115,000 and internal and external refugees now some 4.2 million, many suffering from serious food shortages. While neither Bashar al Assad nor the divided opposition can achieve clear military superiority, the regime’s August use of chemical weapons in suburbs of Damascus, where over 1,000 died, prompted a furious international reaction and threats of military retaliation, and forced Syria to admit it has chemical weapons and to agree to a process of UN-supervised decommissioning.

US constrained

But the confrontation also sharply exposed the extent to which US and UK leaders are now politically constrained domestically over foreign military embroilments – both countries’ leaders faced parliamentary defeats when they sought permission to attack Syria. The experiences of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have changed the political dynamic internationally as Syria’s beleaguered oppositionists have found to their cost. And US global outreach in another form was severely curtailed by the outraged political response of some of its most important allies, from Germany to Brazil, to revelations by ex-CIA man Edward Snowden of huge national and international covert phone and data surveillance. President Obama also faced a 16-day shutdown of state services, a confrontation on the budget that eventually saw Republicans blink first.

Europe’s year was dominated by the continuing work on banking union, some of it under the careful, largely successful pilotage of Ireland’s presidency. But it closed on the EU-Russia confrontation over Ukraine that has brought many thousands on to the streets.

The dynamic of world history is punctuated by elections and natural disasters – major milestones included Barack Obama’s second term inauguration, the election of Rouhani, the formation by Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel’s thirty-third government, the re-election of Angela Merkel, and the elevation through processes that bear little relation to democracy of Argentina’s reforming Pope Francis, and of the new leader of the world’s largest state, Xi Jinping. That election and his commitment to a new mildly reformist programme was also reflected in the sentencing of ambitious Bo Xilai to life in prison, supposedly for corruption.

Up to 6,000 are feared to have died as a result of the Philippines’ Typhoon Haiyan, while the death of Nelson Mandela at 95 reverberated through the world, marking the end of an extraordinarily inspiring life and a closing of a great chapter in the history of Africa.

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