Steven A. Cook

From the Potomac to the Euphrates

Cook examines developments in the Middle East and their resonance in Washington.

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The Middle East in 2013: Don’t Count on It

by Steven A. Cook
January 8, 2013

Egyptian flags are displayed for sale during New Year's Eve celebrations at Tahrir Square in Cairo (Amr Dalsh/Courtesy Reuters). Egyptian flags are displayed for sale during New Year's Eve celebrations at Tahrir Square in Cairo (Amr Dalsh/Courtesy Reuters).

It is finally the second week of January, meaning that the annual year-end/beginning lists and prognostications are mercifully behind us.  Some of these catalogues of best-worst and “what to expect” are more interesting than others—my favorites are best books and articles—but mostly, these exercises are filler for the December 20-January 5 slowdown.  The problem with the annual lists is that because they are done with one eye on the snow conditions at Aspen or the water temperature in the Caribbean or the traffic on I-95, they are often dashed off in a vacuum— with no context and no sense of how these observations connect to each other in useful analytic ways.

The Middle East in 2012 was surprising, exhilarating, depressing, and endlessly fascinating.  Will it be the same in 2013?  Odds are, yes, but there is really no way of forecasting despite the penchant for lists.  If we’ve learned anything in the last few years, let’s try not to build scenarios—a favorite Washington, DC, exercise.  Yet, we can take some of the emerging trends and try to understand how they will shape the politics of the region in 2013 and beyond.

Throughout 2012, some observers began to lament that the “Arab spring” had become an “Islamist winter”—there were more than a dozen articles and blog posts using this new moniker.  It certainly seems that way; Islamists have made gains in Tunisia, Egypt, and are at the leading edge of the opposition to the Assad regime in Syria, and even though Islamists have not prevailed in the immediate post-Qadhafi period, the Islamist extremism factor in Libya is high.  Before the uprisings in the Middle East, the received wisdom was that Islamists could be a force for more open politics.  Yet with political pressure on the media, distinctly majoritarian approaches to the political process, and efforts to foist particular interpretations of Islam on society, the conclusion that Islamism would be progressive seems like misplaced faith. Pretty grim.

Still, all is not necessarily lost. The media and much of the academic as well as policy worlds want to focus on the Islamist end of the political spectrum, and for good reason: Islamist politics in the Middle East is dynamic, it’s a good story, and the Islamists are the people in charge.  Yet, the emphasis on Islamism obscures a far richer political environment of secular nationalists, leftists, and liberals who have a powerful message of their own.  This is not something new, however. Politics in the region may have seemed to be a two-dimensional game between regimes and those who claimed that Islam is the solution, but there was always a broader political debate.  Indeed, prior to the uprising in Egypt in January 2011, liberal ideas framed much of the public discourse.  Both the hated National Democratic Party and the Muslim Brotherhood appropriated liberal ideas about political reform for their own, ultimately non-democratic ends, but the fact that both the Brothers and the alleged reformers of the old regime felt it was necessary to leverage liberal principles says something about the power of those ideas.

It is true that Islamists seem to have run the table in the region, especially in Egypt, but many in the region do not seem particularly happy with the way the Islamists have approached governance.  Observers will tell you it is all about bread and jobs, which is only true to a point.  The three weeks or so of protests in Egypt in late November and early December weren’t about economic grievances, they were about President Mohammed Morsi’s power grab.  The problem is, of course, that liberal, secular, nationalist, and leftist opposition groups cannot get their acts together when it comes to the formal political process.  There are already splits in Egypt’s National Salvation Front, which was created during those tense moments where Egyptians of all walks and political suasions expressed their disapproval of Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood’s authoritarian moves.  Even if the secular-oriented opposition throughout the Middle East fails politically, their ideas will remain important in the national debates about the best way forward.  Just watching the Muslim Brothers, the Salafis, and extremists will tell us much about the Middle East in 2013, but it will not give observers a full view of the complex and multi-layered politics of the Arab world.

A lot of these politics revolve around national empowerment and dignity.  In other words, “nationalism” actually means something in post-uprising societies. To be sure, nationalism has always been a powerful force in the Middle East—as it is in most places—but the now deposed leaders in the region were not credible nationalists. Mubarak was completely compromised.  Qadhafi was once an exemplar of Arab nationalism, but because his ideas were so clearly delusional, it was hard for anyone, save a relatively small group of die-hards, to take him seriously. Tunisia’s Ben Ali sacked the country’s first leader after independence and nationalist par excellence, Habib Bourguiba, but was unable to use his predecessor’s legacy for political effect because of the police state he built alongside obscene corruption. Assad is Alawi and dependent on Iran, neither of which helps even if you consistently claim that Syria is the “beating heart of Arab nationalism.”  With the exception of Syria, which has deteriorated into a gruesome civil war as Assad hangs on, you now have leaders in the region who can make legitimate claims to be good or better nationalists than their predecessors.  That is why nationalist ideas are bound to be more important and potent going forward.  When Mubarak, for example, made some sort of nationalist appeal, it was generally met with a collective yawn or derision.  More credible leaders who can assert that they are pursuing policies specifically for their country’s interests are likely to have more political success.

The renewed usefulness of nationalism is going to make the Middle East even tougher for outsiders.  It is too much to say that external actors will be gone; despite the tumult and economic troubles of the present moment, the West and the United States, in particular, continue to have significant influence.  Nevertheless, as the calendar turned over it was hard to draw any conclusions about the foreign policy trajectories of various countries in the Middle East.  It stands to reason that it is going to be difficult to replicate the U.S.-friendly regional political order that prevailed until late 2010.  In a broad sense, the Gulf states remain firmly aligned with the United States, as does Ankara and Jerusalem.  No doubt a powerful group, but everywhere else remains in flux, making it hard to determine how and with whom the United States can/will be able to work to achieve its interests in the region.

It is hardly bold to suggest that the defining features of Arab politics in the old year—demands for democratic government, economic opportunity, national dignity, and fierce contestation over who gets to define political and social institutions—will continue to animate the region in the new one.  Yet, observers consistently fail to see how tightly these issues are woven together, setting them up for some big surprises in 2013.

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