At the end of every year and the beginning of a new one, social scientists like us believe it to be an opportune moment to take stock of the passing year and gaze into the crystal ball to ponder over missed events or predict major new ones, trends and phenomena that will be at play to shape and influence our well-being and fate in the years to come.
2012 started with a bang with wide expectations. After the US withdrawal from Iraq and drawing down of its forces in Afghanistan, the naive belief was that everything would be in order. Instead, disorder and mayhem seem to be unfolding.
Iraq has descended by the end of 2012 and early 2013 into a dysfunctional, sectarian, divided society with a real fear of civil war rearing its ugly head again. Afghanistan is descending into a fractured and failed state and is not by any stretch of imagination a governable country, but a vestige of instability, while US-Nato allies are preparing to leave the graveyard of invaders.
Those wide-eyed Arabs who looked at 2012 for dividends of the Arab Spring were in for a rude awakening. So were those who dreamed of a strong Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). Arabs continued to dither and lose ground, while Turks found themselves with limited options.
Iran haemorrhaged and found itself fighting on many fronts, Israel learned the limitations of hegemony in its disastrous war over Gaza and all the power and bravado have not sheltered its people in occupied Jerusalem and Tel Aviv from Hamas’ missiles and fury. The US learned how the economic constraints, election year politics, pivoting-towards-Asia move and leading-from-behind strategy are not the remedy for its lost supreme status.
2012 started with the US withdrawal from Iraq after eight bloody years. The US has accomplished very little and lost more strategic ground, having ceded Iraq to Iran after it upset the fragile regional balance of power. Iran in 2012 seems to be emboldened and bent on challenging the status quo.
However, because of the heavy toll and expandable way it has been dealing with its ally Syria, Iran has been bleeding with its allies and proxies, while at the same time it continues to defy the international community over its nuclear programme, withstanding severe and crippling sanctions.
The Middle East peace process has faltered as Israel launched another war on beleaguered Gaza. the withdrawal of the US from Iraq followed a self-cocooning in an endless cycle of presidential election and economic woes and doldrums in what was an epic presidential election year.
The GCC did not move towards the much talked-about union to transform itself into a stronger alliance to fend off real threats and potential adversaries and foes. The GCC union was delayed for the need for more deliberations and counselling to convince those who were not enthused enough to sign the deal.
Maybe 2013 will usher in some changes even by those who are willing to join as a first step towards a stronger and more potent union to deter the GCC’s foes, especially Iran.
The Arab Spring, which has been an ongoing politico-socio phenomenon, has completed its second year and has gone through two springs, autumns and winters, but the disillusioned masses in those Arab republics seem to have lost steam and confidence in the end results of the most important transformational wave to have hit Arab societies and masses in a millennium.
As Sheri Berman writes in the latest issue of Foreign Affairs in a piece titled ‘The Promise of the Arab Spring’: “Two years after the outbreak of what has been come to be known as the Arab Spring, the bloom is off the rose … Instead of widespread elation about democracy finally coming to the region, one now hears pessimism about the many obstacles in the way; fear about what would happen next and even open nostalgia for the old authoritarian rule.”
But then, she concluded: “The scepticism is as predictable and misguided”, because “every surge of democratisation over the last century after First World War, after Second World War ... has been followed by an undertow, accompanied by widespread questioning of the viability even desirability of democratic governance in the areas in question.”
In other words, these messy processes of political development are the prelude to better democratic order as the author concludes. Is that analysis reassuring for the Arab masses, to not despair because this is a transitional phase, which will yield stable and mature democracies? In fact, she concluded: “Stable liberal democracies usually emerge only at the end of long, often violent struggle, with many twists and turns, false starts and detours.”
However, the most salient phenomenon that needs to be studied and watched in the Arab world, with all its twists and turns, is the ascendance of Islamists and the phobia of Muslim Brotherhood coming to power in Sunni Muslim societies and politics, led by Egypt’s President Mohammad Mursi’s historical victory to become the first non-military president and the first Islamist president to win a highly contested presidential election in Egypt. Islamists rounded their major ascendance to power in the Arab political scene forming a Sunni Crescent spreading from Morocco to Kuwait.
This is a new political landscape which has seen the Islamists grab power in the Arab republics and in other places where they have been the best prepared and entrenched to capitalise on the democratic wave. Today, it is a totally new and different ball game in the Arab world, where Islamists have catapulted to power to govern and lead Arab societies and politics. This trend will gather steam and power — with challenges and fumbles.
The past year was also the year of elections and Olympics. President Obama was re-elected convincingly; President Vladimir Putin of Russia mastered the musical chair game and returned to the Kremlin to lead a resurgent Russia, though it is still not sure of its place and its strategy.
The Chinese, who have become a power to be reckoned with, with legitimate aspirations and clout, changed their leadership peacefully and challenged and menaced Japan, Vietnam, Philippines and its smaller neighbours, worrying the US about its intentions.
The European Union faced its biggest challenge over the future of Eurozone and the euro. Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel and France, under the socialist Francoise Hollande, fought to keep the EU intact in the face of an indifferent Britain. And the international political system in 2012 moved closer to a multi-polar world. Yet, 2012 ended with most of these wide-eyed dreams and expectations either faltering or going unfulfilled.
It is hoped that 2013 will deliver on those dreams and expectations and fulfil some of these unfinished dreams and bring more peaceful changes and lasting positive trends.
Professor Abdullah Al Shayji is the chairman of the political science department, Kuwait University. You can follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/docshayji