Top 10 Ways the Middle East Changed, 2012

1. The end of any potential ‘two state solution’ to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Israel’s far right wing Likud government, headed by Binyamin Netanyahu, built or committed to build thousands of new family domiciles for Israeli squatters in Palestinian territory. In the absence of a Palestinian state, Palestinians are doomed to statelessness and a lack of basic human rights, living under Israeli military occupation. The only other possibility, given that they live on territory unilaterally annexed by Israel, is for them ultimately to gain Israeli citizenship. In the meantime, Israel’s treatment of the occupied Palestinians looks even worse than Apartheid or racial segregation and systematic discrimination in South Africa before 1990. Israeli Apartheid is likely to result in the country being sanctioned and boycotted by the international community. Meanwhile, With Israeli parliamentary elections looming early in 2013, Prime Minister Netanyahu launched a brief Gaza war in November, so as to burnish his credentials as a hawk and gain popularity. He found, however, that he was boxed in by the Obama administration and the new Muslim Brotherhood president, Muhammad Morsi, in Egypt. Netanyahu, much weakened in the Middle East, had to stand down from Gaza with few tangible achievements. Does this failure signal a weakening of Israel diplomatically in the wake of the Arab upheavals of the past two years?

2. Yemen’s president Ali Abdullah Saleh was finally forced from office. His vice president, Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, was elected president in a nationwide referendum held last February, with 80% turnout. Yemen then faced a number of crises, including resurgent religious fundamentalism, southern separatism, American drone strikes, and a worrying water shortage.

3. Egypt moved decisively from military to civilian rule. For the first time in its history, Egypt elected its president, Muhammad Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood.(There had been indirectly elected prime ministers in the Liberal Age, 1922-1952). Since the young officers coup of July, 1952, Egypt’s president had come from the upper ranks of the officer corps. As 2012 opened, the 23-member Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) was the de facto executive of the country, which had appointed the prime minister and approved his cabinet. In June 2012, the supreme administrative court dissolved the parliament that had been elected late in 2011, and SCAF promptly declared itself the interim national legislature, attempting to limit the powers of the incoming elected president, Muhammad Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood. Morsi gradually made senior officers retire and got an agreement from the junior generals that he promoted that they would return to the barracks. On August 15, Morsi abrogated the SCAF decree on the legislature. By the crisis of the referendum on the constitution from November 22 until December 22, the military had been effectively sidelined or turned into an instrument of the Muslim Brotherhood president. Egypt has many problems, including the question of whether the Muslim Brotherhood really respects individual human rights. But it is indisputable that the country’s basis for legitimate government has become free and fair parliamentary elections. Meanwhile, Egypt moved decisively toward Muslim fundamentalist governance, with the passing in December of a new constitution, crafted in large part by supporters of political Islam.

4. The ruling Baath regime in Syria, over the course of 2012, lost more and more territory to the revolutionaries. They lost control of the border crossings to Iraq and Turkey. They lost much of Aleppo, the country’s second city. Then in November and December, the revolutionaries began taking military bases in the north and looting them for medium weaponry. The regime still controls substantial territory, and some smaller cities, such as Homs. But its losses in 2012 have been highly significant, raising the question of how much longer the regime can survive. In the meantime, Syria refugees in Turkey, Syria and Lebanon mushroomed in number and they faced severe difficulties in their often unsanitary and inadequate tent cities. In Syria, as in Bahrain and Yemen, sectarian considerations began to enter into the movements against authoritarian governance. The Alawi Shiite minority dominates the Baath Party in Syria, and Sunni fundamentalists have targeted that group (and vice versa). The government is supported by Shiite Iran, the rebels by Wahhabi Qatar and Saudi Arabia. If the Damascus government falls, Iran will be weakened, as will its ally, Hizbullah of Lebanon.

5. Libya held a series of municipal elections in spring of 2012, then in July held successful parliamentary elections. After the first prime minister to come from the parliament proved unable to please the elected delegates in parliament, they removed him and put in a second prime minister. Despite the series of violent incidents in Benghazi, the second-largest city, Libya’s transition from the quirky dictatorship of Muammar Qaddafi to elective government has been anything but smooth, but such a transition is certainly taking place. Political Islam fared poorly in Libyan elections, where nationalists took center stage for the most part, since people are suspicious of ideologies after four decades of Qaddafi.

6. Angry members of a small fundamentalist terrorism group attacked the US ad hoc consulate on September 11, killing the ambassador, Christ Stevens, and 3 other Americans. In late December fighting broke out between the state and fundamentalists in Benghazi, leaving several policemen dead and many hard line demonstrators or attackers jailed.

7. In revolutionary Tunisia, 2012 saw a political struggle between the small but violent minority of Salafis or hard line fundamentalists, and, well, everybody else. Salafi attacks on unveiled women provoked a huge anti-Salafi rally in the capital, Tunis. In summer, some Salafis attacked an art exhibit in tony LaMarsa. In September, Salafis of a more al-Qaeda mindset set fire to the parking lot of the American embassy and looted some of its offices. The leader of the movement for political Islam in Tunisia, the al-Nahda Party’s Rashid Ghanoushi, was caught on tape warning the Salafis that if they continued to be so provocative, they risked instigating a civil war like that in Algeria (where some 150,000 Algerians died in a struggle between secularists and Muslim fundamentalists in 1991-2002).

8. The US Congress’s National Defense Authorization Act contained an anti-Iran provision that went into effect July 1. It requires the US government to strong-arm the countries still purchasing Iranian oil to stop buying it. The boycott cut Iran’s oil sales in half in 2012 (though 2011 was a particularly lucrative year for the regime). At the same time, Saudi Arabia flooded the market by pumping extra petroleum, keeping the prices from rising astronomically. This economic blockade of Iran’s petroleum is unlikely to change the regime or its behavior, but it will likely kill the Iranian reform movement. And it could be a path for rising tensions and war between Iran and the United States.

9. The beginning of the end of the Afghanistan War, America’s longest: The Obama administration withdrew the 30,000 extra troops from Afghanistan it had sent in as part of the troop escalation or “surge.” That counter-insurgency strategy appears largely to have failed, and its author, Gen. David Petraeus, fell victim to a Washington scandal. The remaining some 66,000 US troops will be withdrawn over the next two years.

10. Bahrain’s government continued to face demonstrations and political unrest as the majority Shiite community campaigns for a more equitable constitution. The US was forced to reduce the number of navy and other military personnel stationed in Manama. The hard line Sunni monarchy accuses its Arab Shiites of being cat’s paws of Iran, but this is a red herring. The regime has resorted to the most despicable arbitrary arrests, absurd charges, punishments for thought crimes, and torture. The US has not done enough to condemn this situation or dissociate itself from the monarchy.

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21 Responses

  1. Dear Professor Cole

    Can we summarise this then as “Israel Wins”. There is nobody left to stop them.

    Syria is knocked out and impotent. Egypt is on the verge of an economic crisis and starvation. Iraq which wasn’t mentioned except in passing is heading towards civil war.

    Saudi Arabia is keeping the head down and stoking Wahabi rebellion in Syria and Iraq.

    Lebanon is being cut off from its arms supply to defend itself against an attack from the south.

    Turkey is trying to cope with a possible resurgence of Kurdish insurrection.

    And the Israelis are surrounding Jerusalem and preparing to complete the ethnic, religous or other cleasing by administrative means to turn the place in to a wholly Jewish city.

    Happy New Year.

    • As you did in your statement a few months ago that the Syrian opposition was being crushed, I think you’re jumping the gun in declaring the Palestinians defeated.

      • Joe

        What will stop the construction of the squat in the E1 block thus joining Male Adumin to Jerusalem?

        As you will see in Jospeh Dillard’s comment below, he thinks the PA have given up.

        The attacks on Damascus have been repelled but with difficulties at present along the airport road. This from the Guardian seems to indicate the rebel push in Aleppo has petered out in an orgy of looting and self agrandisement.

        link to

        • The attacks on Damascus have been repelled but with difficulties at present along the airport road. This from the Guardian seems to indicate the rebel push in Aleppo has petered out in an orgy of looting and self agrandisement.

          “Heroic Baathist troops advanced backwards to Damascus, scoring a decisive victory thirty miles behind what were the front lines last week! More such victories are expected soon!”

          You write like a WW2-era Soviet hack, and you don’t fool anyone by doing so. Translating your comment from hack to English: The rebels have taken a city you told us they were being repelled from, and now fighting in the capital itself.

    • Israel’s government has signed the death warrant for the state of Israel already, they just haven’t noticed yet. It may take years or it may take decades. I think it’s pretty much guaranteed that the state of “Israel” will be gone by 2060, though.

      Meanwhile, history will continue to happen in the “Arab world”, which (apart from Turkey) has been an anomaly of states frozen in time for several decades. I believe several of them are essentially propped up by oil, especially Saudi Arabia; I currently expect it to collapse only after the final shift away from oil comes (in 10-30 years), though if they have fewer reserves than they claim, or draw them down faster, it could collapse sooner.

      The states which replace the sclerotic Arab dictatorships will be much more functional and vibrant and Israel’s military will no longer be able to get away with the sort of arrogant raids and invasions which they used to do in Lebanon and so forth. Eventually the arrogant lunatics in charge of Israel will overreach, and that’s when Israel will be destroyed. (Arrogant lunatics will remain in charge of Israel because the sane Israelis are all emigrating as quick as they can.)

      • Joe

        Sadly my Russian is a little rusty and I am not sure that Pravda or Isvestia’s records are online that far back. Could you provide me with an example for comparison?

        I never said the Palestinians were defeated, and the Summer attacks on Damascus were indeed repelled.

        I would be obliged if you wouldn’t resort to the propagandist’s trick of putting words in my mouth.

  2. Looks like Netanyahu’s three signature efforts in 2012 went nowhere: he failed to block Palestine’s UN membership bid; he failed to get the US to attack Iran for him or endorse an Israeli bombing campaign (although the US/European boycott is indeed an act of war); and he failed to accomplish anything significant in his attack on Gaza. His policy of settlement building has pushed the Palestinian Authority toward dissolving itself, making enforcing Israeli apartheid a totally Israeli project, as it should be.

    • “….he failed to block Palestine’s membership bid.”

      True, however many prominent Israelis, including Ehud Barak and Ehud Olmert supported the largely-symbolic UN General Assembly resolution so I do not think that many Israelis are particular upset over that failure of PM Netanyahu.

      “..he failed to get the US to attack Iran or endorse an Israeli bombing campaign…”

      Also true, however Israel claimed success in cyber-attacks against Iranian nuclear facilities which they claim severely set back the atomic programs in that nation – although it is open to debate how successful this joint U.S.-Israeli sabotage operation actually was.

      “…and he also failed to accomplish anything significant in his attack on Gaza.”

      This is likewise debatable. 170 Gazans were killed and hundreds wounded – so one can say a “deterrent effect” may have been instilled by the IDF from this and also the fact that hundreds of millions of dollars in property damage were inflicted upon such institutions as the Hamas Bank and other civilian infrastructure. This damage is being trumpeted by the Netanyahu government as a measure of its success in the armed campaign. The Iron Dome missile defense system also received praise from the Israeli public for its performance in protecting Tel Aviv. The ensuing truce agreement with Hamas also extracted a promise to halt missile strikes on Israel. Overall the conflict appeared to be a draw with both sides having reason to claim some degree of satisfaction.

      Overall, Bibi appears to be “in the catbird’s seat” as new elections are forthcoming in January.

  3. “Netanyahu.. boxed in by the Obama administration” is a bit kind to jellyfish POTUS, who said NOT ONE WORD of sympathy for the 10 Palestinians killed (59 children) then allowed Susan Rice to do the usual veto of any criticism of Israel in the UNSC.

    • There is a great deal more to politics and international affairs than empty public statements.

      In fact, empty public statements of sympathy are the most meaningless actions a state or political actor can take.

      I don’t understand why anyone would set that as their bar.

  4. It’s interesting how Israel and Bahrain have governments and Iran and Syria have regimes. I guess that’s academic freedom.

  5. If I was working for the Israeli opposition, I’d run an ad showing video of Nethanyahu speaking, then a shot of Barack Obama, then a shot of the PM of Turkey, while a voiceover intoned “Israel has never been so isolated.”

    Christ Stevens

    I admire and appreciate Ambassador Stevens’ work and sacrifice as much anyone, but this is getting ridiculous.

    • Look at this now: link to

      Haaretz reports that Benjamin Netanyahu looks poised to appoint, Ron Dermer, the architect of his campaign season alliance with Mitt Romney, as Israel’s new Ambassador to the United States.

      What the hell does Netanyahu think he’s doing? More irrational, erratic belligerence.

  6. Everything in geopolitics takes longer than we expect.

    It is inevitable that the Syrian Baathist regime will fall. Still, it’s taking years.

    It is inevitable that the Israeli Apartheid regime will be isolated by international sanctions. Still, it’s taking years.

    It is inevitable that the Eurocracy will dissolve in the face of an angry, hungry, unemployed public. This is taking years, too.

    It is inevitable that the US will dismantle its bloated military-industrial complex and retreat towards an isolationist stance. This is taking decades, possibly a century.

    It is inevitable that the Republican Party in the US will collapse from the weight of its own denial of reality. I have no idea how long this will take.

    Professor Cole, do you have any sense of timing? Because I don’t.

    From what I can tell, there is a point when change becomes guaranteed and inevitable. Then years, decades, or even centuries (in the ancient world) pass without visible change. Then suddenly everything changes in a matter of weeks or months, or even days. It would be much less stressful if it were possible to predict the timelines better.

  7. The wild card as far as I am concerned is Pakistan. I do not have a good understanding of Pakistani internal politics, but there appear to be a *lot* of fault lines.

    I did learn one interesting thing through research. The remnants of feudalism (and tax farming) were abolished in India from the 1950s through the 1970s, but were never abolished in Pakistan. The class barriers in Pakistan remain more *institutionalized* than in India; in India they have receded to *socially entrenched* rather than *legally entrenched*.

    Combine this with several parts of the country which appear to be treated as “colonized barbarians”, and multiple ethnic/linguistic groups in the “main” part of the country, and a “deep state” substantially more entrenched and complicated than anything in Egypt, and you have something which looks awfully messy and awfully old-fashioned.

    What are the bargains and deals, and traditions and shared culture, holding Pakistan together? It seems like it ought to fall apart the way the absurd borders of the African colonial-era states have mostly fallen apart. (Despite the borders on our maps, the “real” borders of African governance are elsewhere; I’d love to see a proper *de facto* map of where authority runs.) But Pakistan hasn’t fallen apart. What’s holding it together?

  8. A viable Palestinian state is simply not possible given the geographic and demographic “facts on the ground” that Israel has created. Already isolated, as the recent UN vote demonstrated, the “Jewish” state will become even more so as the US public becomes increasingly disillusioned with its apartheid excesses. The tide has turned. The call for a single secular state with guarantees of justice for all looks less and less like a pipe dream and more and more like the only way out for all concerned.

    • Agreed.

      Any two-state solution Israel allows will be a sham. It is expected to have numerous Jewish settlements criss-crossed with roads under IDF control. There will be pockets of Palestinian control in the major Arab population centers – but nothing remotely resembling true Palestinian sovereignty consistent with that of what one would consider an independent nation.

      An Israeli diplomat speaking to a group of Jewish students at University of Michigan in Ann Arbor recently, stated there would be significant pullback of IDF from areas of the West Bank – but that the projected national boundaries between Israel and the Palestinian Authority would be nowhere near the pre-1967 borders.

  9. Re: Point #8.
    The 2012 NDAA was enacted into law when it was signed by the US President. The current President has been able to implement his agenda without resorting to the veto.
    Why is this particular law ascribed to the Congress, who writes all the draft laws, and so far has enacted none of them by way of veto override ?

    • Because the President used the threat of a veto to compel Congress to change that section of the defense spending bill – to change it from a bill that would have required the government to put terrorism suspect into indefinite military detention, to one that gave him the authority to continue his policy of not putting a single terrorism suspect into military detention.

      If Barack Obama, who has not put a single terrorism suspect into military detention, has an “agenda” of doing so, then why hasn’t he, and why did he pick a fight with Congress so that he could continue not to do so?

      • Mr Lowell,
        I cannot answer your riposte. I don’t understand it.

        While the NDAA provisions on detention concern me deeply
        (I am the guy who is working to get the 86 or so innocent prisoners at Gitmo outta there,)
        my comment above was in reference to the Obama agenda regarding crushing the Iranian economy and causing widespread starvation there.

        See Cole’s Point #8 above.

  10. As to the Israeli situation, one of the rising stars of the Israeli right-wing is Naftali Bennett, a young computer software multimillionaire whose parents are from San Francisco.

    He opposes Palestinian statehood and wants increased settlement activity in the West Bank. His party is expected to pick up a substantial amount of Knesset seats and to forge a coalition with Likud, making the projected government to be one of the most rightist in Israel’s history.

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