x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

Turbulent year in Middle East hid deeper political currents

As we look back over a tumultuous year in the region, and look forward to year of more progress, peace and prosperity, it is helpful to recall the context in which these flashes of news occur.

As one of the most strategically important regions of the world, the Middle East is often in flux. The year 2012, however, has been an especially dramatic year.

Looking back, in my last column of the year, it is clear that there are flashes - of news, of violence, of surprise - that catch our attention. But below the surface, there are deeper themes at play.

It can be hard to guess, from this brief vantage point, how the big events of the year will look to historians. Last year was dominated by the Arab Spring, especially in its Egyptian incarnation, and 2012 continues that theme. The writing of the Egyptian constitution marks a high point in that post-revolution transition.

Yet what should have been a celebration and a model for other regional countries has devolved into partisan bickering. Much of the blame for that must be laid at the feet of President Mohammed Morsi. But the significance of the moment is not in doubt. If the constitution survives in its current incarnation, it will be a real turning point in Egypt's history.

There were other events that either don't seem as newsworthy now, or, due to their complexity, fail to make headlines.

A good example of the first was the stepping aside in February of Yemen's long-time president, Ali Abdullah Saleh. Mr Saleh was finally ousted after months of protests, with his exit brokered by the Gulf Cooperation Council.

Yet the sight of him standing next to his successor, peacefully handing over the presidency, was almost unknown among the Arab republics. In no other country gripped by uprisings had that happened.

A good example of the second - events that fell out of the news - is the continuing political and occasionally armed grappling in Libya. The sheer complexity of that country, the lack of foreign correspondents with adequate local knowledge, and the fact that Libya's transition does not fit the cookie-cutter mould of Islamists gaining power through elections (Islamist parties have done surprisingly poorly in Libya) has conspired to demote Libya's newsworthiness.

And yet, because of its location and potentially vast energy reserves, Libya will play an important role in Arab and North African affairs in the coming years.

There have been events that grip our attention by their sheer violence. The endless conflict between Israel and the Palestinians exploded into open warfare again in 2012, first in March and again, with renewed ferocity, in November. In both cases, clashes were triggered by an Israeli assassination in the Gaza strip, followed by air strikes across the densely-populated area and rocket attacks from Gaza into Israel.

Once again, the world's media splashed on horrifying images of dead children, but, amid what have become awfully routine reports of death, one incident stood out: the wiping out of almost the entire family of Jamal Dalu. In one Israeli air raid in a residential neighbourhood in Gaza City, an entire house was flattered, killing 12 people - including Mr Dalu's wife, his sister, his two daughters and his four grandchildren, aged between 2 and 6.

The images of their small bodies, limbs wrapped around one another, in a Gaza hospital went viral, defining a conflict too often seen only through destroyed buildings.

Yet it was what came after that will likely have the widest ramifications in the coming years. Egypt, now led by an Islamist president, took charge of mediating a ceasefire, dragging Israel and Hamas to a negotiating table in Cairo, and brokering the end of hostilities. It was a strong signal that a democratic Egypt will be an important force for stability in the region.

The biggest story of the year, though, did not start in 2012 and will not end before 2013. There was no one defining moment in the continuing conflict in Syria, now devolving from its peaceful origins of protest calling for political reforms into what resembles a civil war.

Beyond these stories that dominated this year's headlines, there are also deeper themes at work.

From a historical perspective, the Arab Spring is part of a much-longer story, one of political conflict about the nature of political authority that has raged since the demise of the caliphate in 1924.

Indeed, the continued assertion of independent states after a long period of outside interference - by force before the Second World War, and by the threat of force after it - is also part of this story. And how these independent states act without this threat is to decide their political futures.

How countries become independent, how they express the will of their people through governments, indeed how these countries decide what the legitimate expression of that will is - all of these big questions are interrelated. They are manifested in the rise of Islamism, in the debates over the constitution in Egypt, in the fractious politics of Libya, in the attempt of Yemen's interim government to be independent from private armies, and the fight of the Syrian people to throw off one family's domination.

As we look back over a tumultuous year in the region, and look forward to year of more progress, peace and prosperity, it is helpful to recall the context in which these flashes of news occur.



On Twitter: @FaisalAlYafai