ME LookBack
Image Credit: Gulf News

It’s been one of the most eventful years in the Arab world since outbreak of the Arab Spring, almost an entire decade ago. The similarities with 2011 were numerous, and very noteworthy. For starters, four Arab leaders were toppled during a groundbreaking period of six months, starting April ending December 2019. All were ejected from office via popular uprisings, a la 2011.

Many have called it a “year of the people” due to the audacity of young demonstrators who took to the streets throughout the region, demanding democracy, change, and rehaul of their ailing political systems. 2019 witnessed four revolutions, in Algeria, Sudan, Iraq, and Lebanon.

Deposed premiers

Two of the deposed were Arab premiers, being Saad Al Hariri of Lebanon and Adel Abdul Mahdi of Iraq, who resigned from their posts on October 29 and December 1 respectively. Both have stayed on in a caretaker capacity as their countries plunge into crippling turmoil with dangerous economic and security threats.

Toppled presidents

Earlier in the Spring, anti-regime protests had also toppled two of the longest serving presidents throughout the region, being Abdul Aziz Bouteflika of Algeria and Omar Al Bashir of Sudan. They were both ejected from office within a ground-breaking period of one week, beating the 27-day interval benchmark that separated the back-to-back resignations of presidents Zein Al Abidine Ben Ali and Hosni Mubarak, in early 2011.

At the age of 83, President Ben Ali passed away this year on September 19, reminding Tunisians of the price that they paid for freedom from his rule. His death was announced shortly before they got a new president, 61-year-old university professor Kais Saied, coming at the heels of the passing away of another Tunisian president, Baji Caid Essebsi, on July 25. While Bouteflika was allowed to live the remainder of his years in medical treatment, Omar Al Bashir was thrown into jail by the military junta that came to power in Khartoum.

Notable deaths

Other notable deaths of 2019 were former Maronite Patriarch Mar Nasrallah Boutros Sfeir of Lebanon, who died at the ripe age of 99 on May 12, and the infamous self-proclaimed “caliph” of Daesh, Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi, who was killed in a sophisticated US operation in the Syrian northwest on October 26.

While Sfeir was mourned as a national hero who presided over rebirth of the Maronite community and led the anti-Syrian revolt of 2005, Baghdadi’s death was celebrated in all four corners of the world, considered an usurper of Islam and a terrorist responsible for the killing of thousands of innocents. Interestingly, the previous king of terror, Osama Bin Laden, had been killed — also by the Americans — in 2011.

Turkish expansionism

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan was in the news throughout most of the year, almost always with negative coverage. For starters, he put his full weight behind the Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated government of Fayez Al Sarraj in Tripoli, sending arms and funds to militants to combat the advances of the Saudi-backed army general, Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar.

In Syria, Erdogan launched a military invasion on October 9, aimed at dismantling Kurdish positions east of the Euphrates River, and occupying more Syrian territory. Turkish mercenaries were sent into the Syrian battlefield to behead and assassinate Kurdish figures, while occupying the cities of Ras Al Ayn and Tel Abyad. They now constitute part of Erdogan’s “safe zone” in Syria, 100-km in width and 34-km in depth, carved out ostensibly to keep the Kurds at bay and relocate Syrian refugees who have been residing in Turkey since 2011.

The Syrian conflict

Turkey’s invasion of the Syrian northeast was triggered by Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw troops from cities and towns that were under American control, leaving their Kurdish proxies in disarray. Frantically, they headed towards Damascus, reaching a deal with the Syrian government on October 13, which led to the surrender of major cities like Al Raqqa to the Syrian Army. 

In exchange, they promised to disband their militias, known as the Syrian Democratic Forces and the People’s Protection Units, which ostensibly, ought to have been reincorporated into the Syrian Army by this December. That did not happen, however, due to Trump’s sudden decision to keep troops in Syria, ostensibly to protect the oil from a Daesh comeback.

Militarily, the Syrian and Russian armies started a military operation in the Idlib province at midyear, and managed to re-take the strategic town of Khan Sheikhoun, a former stronghold for the armed opposition. Politically, the Syrian conflict got a new UN Special Envoy this year, Norwegian diplomat Geir Pedersen, who took over from Staffan de Mistura in January and managed to jump-start constitutional talks in Geneva last October. That perhaps was the single most important political development in the nearly nine-year-old Syrian conflict, but as the year comes to close, it stands in limbo, as negotiators from the government and opposition are unable to decide on a new date for talks, or on basic principles for the new charter.

Palestine, the forgotten cause

Meanwhile, Israeli expansion went ahead unchecked in Palestine, as Benjamin Netanyahu promised to annex the Jordan Valley to the Zionist State, completely isolating the truncated Palestinian State. His pledge came months after Trump decided to recognise Israeli sovereignty over the Syrian Golan Heights, occupied since 1967, and one year after the US Administration announced that Jerusalem, rather than Tel Aviv, was the “eternal capital” of Israel.

Instead of uniting to fight off any future Israeli advances, the Palestinians are still divided between Hamas-led rule in Gaza and Fatah authority in the West Bank. President Mahmoud Abbas has called for parliamentary and presidential elections, without specifying a date for them, and after much hesitation, Hamas announced that it would take part in both, at the urging of Turkey and Qatar, who hope to expand Muslim Brotherhood rule to the West Bank, repeating the failed Egyptian experiment of 2012-2013.

— Sami Moubayed is a Syrian historian and former Carnegie scholar. He is also author of Under the Black Flag: At the frontier of the New Jihad.