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Michael Jansen: Dim prospects for 2013
December 28, 2012
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Tunisia, where the Arab Spring began, is still in ferment over the character of the country and the type of government it will have. Tunisia is dominated by Al-Nahda, an offshoot of Egypt’s  Muslim Brotherhood. Al-Nahda, which is pressing for the gradual transformation of the country into an Islamic state, will continue confronting politicians with a “civil” or secular agenda.

Meanwhile, the poor are likely to continue protesting that they have seen no improvements in their lives since the 2010-11 up-rising against President Zine Al-Abidine Ben Ali that set off revolts across the Arab world.  Trade unionists can be expected to carry on with their campaign for jobs and better pay and conditions and radical Salafis will prosecute their attacks against liberals and more moderate Al-Nahda. 

Libya, where Muammar Qadhafi was ousted in a bloody and destructive war, has a democratically elected government but the country remains chaotic.  Tribesmen and Salafis are certain to contest the authority of the state and the latter to continue attacking mosques and shrines belonging to mystical Sufi orders. 

But the ongoing struggles in Tunisia and Libya will be over shadowed by developments in Egypt, the most populace Arab nation, with 83 million people, and formerly the political and cultural leader of the Arab world. 

There, the 84-year-old Muslim Brotherhood, the country’s first grassroots political movement, has used the ballot box to take control after the uprising that toppled President Hosni Mubarak on February 11th, 2011. As with Al-Nahda, the ultimate aim of the Egyptian Brotherhood is an Islamic state. 

 However, the Brotherhood’s grip on power is disputed by liberal,  leftist, rightist and moderate fundamentalist revolutionaries who are determined to fight for the soul, heart and body of Egypt. They will continue to insist that the goal of the revolution launched in 2011 is a “civil,” pluralistic, democratic state where all citizens are equal.

The struggle in Egypt will peak in less than two months time when the country is set to elect a new lower house of parliament.  Ten factions in the disputatious and disorganised secular camp have come  together in the National Salvation Front, a coalition led by Nobel Peace Prizelaureate Muhammad El-Baradei, former Arab League chief Amr  Moussa, and presidential candidate Hamdeen Sabbahi. The Front’s aim is to confront the Brotherhood through democratic means.

The election will follow the adoption by nearly 64 per cent of voters of a contested constitution drafted by a committee dominated by Brotherhood and Salafi figures. Critics argue that the document does not ensure equal rights for minorities and women, gives the military the authority to oversee its own affairs and conduct trials of civilians, and promotes the Brotherhood’s agenda.

Both camps have a very difficult struggle until the parliamentary poll.  The Salvation Front must agree on a clear policy line and organise at the popular level to persuade Egyptians to vote for its candidates. 

The Brotherhood, which holds the presidency through Muhammad Morsi, and dominates the upper house of parliament, the Shura Council, has to impose highly unpopular taxes on fuel, electricity, soft drinks, cement, and other goods and field credible candidates for seats in the lower house. 

If Morsi fails to impose the taxes, $4.8 billion in loans could be indefinitely postponed by the every demanding International Monetary Fund. Egypt urgently needs such injections of money to shore up its sinking economy.

Both camps have to battle against voter fatigue.  In the late 2011-early 2012 election for the lower house, 59 per cent of the electorate participated; in the hotly contested presidential poll last June, 49 per cent took part; and in the constitutional referendum only 32 per cent turned-out.  Egyptians are unconvinced by the Salvation Front and disillusioned by the Brotherhood, which has failed to deliver jobs, reforms in the police, better schools and health services, or improve services such as garbage collection and traffic management in Egypt’s densely populated cities.

While the struggle in Egypt could determine the political future  of the Arab world, the battle for Syria, the heartland of the Eastern  Arab world, could destablise this region in 2013.  The ongoing war in  Syria is being fought by many armed factions with competing agendas and  no experience in administration or political life. The Cairo-based Syrian National Coalition, which is expected to govern if the Baathist regime falls, does not exercise control over fighting units in the country.

The most competent armed group to emerge is the Jabhat al-Nusra, an offshoot of the Islamic State of Iraq, an al-Qa’ida affiliate which seeks to establish an Islamic Caliphate across the Arab world but cares little about Syria itself.

During this bloody civil war, tens of thousands of Syrians will  die, hundreds of thousands will be driven into exile and the Arabs’ mag nificent cultural heritage located in Syria will be destroyed and looted. From Syria, Jabhat al-Nusra fighters have infiltrated Lebanon  and Jordan where they will try to destabilise these countries. 

The Islamic State of Iraq and similar groups have regrouped and  reasserted themselves in Iraq where they can be expected to prosecute  their drive to oust the Shia fundamentalist regime installed by the US after its conquest of the country in 2003. Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki will respond by cracking down on Sunni politicians with the  aim of consolidating his personal grip on power.  His actions will ensure that Iraq will continue to be a failed state. 

Meanwhile, the region will remain at risk of war from an attack on Iran by Israel and the US.  Pro-Israeli hardliners in Washington predict that if Iran and the West fail to reach an accord over Tehran’s nuclear programme during 2013, Israel could launch military strikes against Iran’s nuclear facilities, drawing in the US and risking a major conflict. 

Likely to be reinstated after Israel’s parliamentary election at the end of January, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu could resort to war against Iran even if a deal is reached.  He seeks a means to deflect international attention from Israel’s rapid colonisation of Palestinian territory, pre-empting the emergence of the Palestinian state promised by the international community.

 The Arab Spring, once a season of joy, has given birth to contestation and conflict rather than transition to democracy.
The author, a well-respected observer of Middle East
affairs, has three books on the Arab-Israeli conflict

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