BEIRUT: A nuclear deal with Iran is the only glimmer of hope in a region convulsed by violence and hurtling toward conflict escalation in 2014.
Three years after the Arab Spring protests erupted, Middle East and North African nations are seeing a reversion to authoritarianism that in many cases exceeds the levels that prompted Arab Spring demonstrations.
The emergence of new leadership – whether via elections, as in Iran, or by force, as in Egypt – has led to dramatic political and diplomatic recalibrations in 2013. And, while the new arrangements hold the potential for peaceful settlements to decadeslong conflicts, the rate at which change is happening is encouraging powerful nations to adopt more defensive and confrontational policies.
Egypt presents particularly dangerous scenarios. Nearly two-and-half years after Hosni Mubarak’s overthrow, the country is now experiencing a transition to authoritarianism and violence under military rule that looks frighteningly similar to its prerevolutionary conditions.
The country’s new military rulers have embarked on what appears to be an attempt to eradicate their foes, supporters of the now banned Muslim Brotherhood, and in so doing have raised the specter of radicalization and the threat of Islamist militancy even further.
“ Egypt is rapidly going beyond even Mubarak-era authoritarianism,” said Daniel Levy, Middle East and North Africa director at the European Council on Foreign Relations, from London.
“The new regime in Egypt wanted to frame this as a war on terror. They have overstepped the mark so dramatically that they will get their war on terror.”
The prospect of militant violence in the Sinai rightly unnerves Israel. How it would respond if cross border violence intensifies, however, remains unclear.
“The wild card is if someone takes a shot at Israel from the Sinai, how will the Israelis respond? I don’t think anyone really knows,” said Steven Cook, Middle East expert at the Council of Foreign Relations,” from Washington.
“The politics in Israel will always demand some kind of response.”
Internal Israeli politics are also likely to stymie Middle East peace efforts between Israel and Palestine, which have been driven by steroidal shuttle diplomacy on the part of U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, who will make his 10th visit on New Year’s day since taking office in 2013.
“The secretary of state must know something that we don’t to keep going back. But whatever Herculean effort Kerry makes, an agreement is very hard to foresee. The Israelis simply can’t deliver what the Palestinians want and need and the Palestinians just can’t deliver what the Israelis want and need,” Cook said.
Potentially decreasing Israel’s inclination to engage robustly with U.S. peace efforts is anger over the signs of rapprochement with its arch rival Iran.
An historic deal between Iran and six major powers was agreed in November for Tehran to freeze parts of its nuclear program in exchange for temporary sanctions relief under newly elected reformist President Hassan Rouhani. Now the hard work begins.
If implemented, the deal could see dramatic reorganization in the balance of power in the region and an end to one of the century’s most defining conflicts.
“The only positive on the horizon is whether a pragmatic Iran moves into a deal-making space,” Levy said.
But not everyone sees the potential for a deal as a positive.
“If this rapprochement is real and there is some sort of accommodation between the West and Iran it does have the potential to shift the balances of power in the region,” Cook said.
“Some don’t believe this is a genuine opening but others say this is just Iranian maneuvering.”
“The fears on the part of the Saudis is the change in the balance of power and they are ramping up their own diplomatic maneuvers to get what they want,” Cook added.
“We will see more ‘Riyal politik’ as the Saudis spend more and more money in order to blunt what they see as Iranian influence rising.”
Doing so, he said, could heighten political tension within countries and accentuate existing conflicts, pointing to Iraq, Syria and Lebanon, where Saudi Arabia is heavily invested.
Meanwhile the Syrian civil war continues to fester, drawing in militias on both sides of the conflict from across the region. Hopes are dim for scheduled peace talks in Switzerland in January between the Syrian regime of Bashar Assad and his opponents. Fears of the rise of Al-Qaeda-linked forces now appear to have eclipsed Western interests in ousting Assad. The spillover to other countries has long surpassed any reasonable ideas for containment and has sparked sectarian conflicts in neighbor states.
Nowhere has that manifested so dangerously as in Iraq, which, still in transition after a decade of civil war, is now seeing the re-emergence of sectarian violence now threatening to ensnare the country in another conflict.
Widespread anger among the country’s Sunnis, who say they are both marginalized by the government, led by Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, and targeted with heavy-handed tactics by security forces, has now exploded.
Hundreds are killed every month in car bomb attacks. Sunni protests, which quickly turned into an armed struggle, have flared in Anbar, the heart of the insurgency that followed the U.S. occupation of the country in 2003. Maliki has vowed to crush the protest movement in Anbar, which he claims is a hub for Al-Qaeda, as reports continue to emerge of Al-Qaeda militants from the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria moving their operations in Syria to Iraq. Maliki, an ally of Iran and the Syrian regime, likewise continues to face accusations he is doing little to stop the flood of Shiite volunteers into Syria to fight alongside Assad forces.
“It’s a zero-sum battle in Iraq,” Levy said.
Also suffering the reverberations of the Syrian crisis is Turkey.
Hosting some 600,000 refugees, Turkey has come under increasing criticism for its indiscriminate support for the militarized opposition.
Perceived poor judgment by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has coincided with anger over his rising authoritarian tendencies, which erupted in popular protests against Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party in July.
Since then Erdogan’s woes have only worsened. A massive corruption inquiry currently is his biggest challenge yet, with observers now wondering if he can maintain his tenure.
Even if he survives, Erdogan’s version of Islamic democracy, a model for emerging government in Arab Spring states including Libya, Tunisia and Egypt, “has lost its luster,” Cook said.
“Turkey was neither resistance axis, nor pax-Americana. There is nothing that fills that void,” Levy said.
And in Libya? Three years after Western-backed rebels killed dictator Moammar Gadhafi, the country is awash with weapons, with its feeble government authorities unable to extend their control over militias.
“But what we have seen really, is just chaos. Building from scratch where people are armed and there are tribal issues will mean we will see what we are seeing now, but accentuated,” Cook said.
Tunisia, the birthplace of the Arab Spring, is also floundering. Ennahda, elected in the wake of dictator Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali’s 2011 overthrow, has been sharply criticized for failing to rein in Tunisia’s jihadists and has been deadlocked and unable to implement a new constitution.