Yearbook 2011: The political landscape in the Middle East and North Africa

Several Middle East countries have important polls planned in the next 12 months that will determine the political landscape for years to come. Published in the MEED Yearbook 2011

The Middle East and North Africa region could get a little smaller next year, if the planned independence referendum in Southern Sudan goes ahead on 9 January.

Voters are expected to opt to break away from Khartoum in the poll, in what would be the most radical democratic change the region has seen. South Sudan covers an area of about 640,000 square kilometres – slightly larger than Syria and Iraq combined – and the cultural and demographic make up of the province means it will be more easily classified as part of sub-Saharan Africa than North Africa.

However, it is not clear if the poll will proceed as planned. Preparations have been running far behind schedule and there have been sporadic outbreaks of violence that could undermine the entire process. The situation is further complicated by a separate referendum in the disputed oil-rich province of Abyei – due to take place on the same day – on whether it will join the north or the south.

High stakes for Sudan

In an effort to address some of the concerns, the UN placed monitors across the South in October 2010, and they are due to remain in place until after the voting has ended.

“The stakes are very high,” said UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon in a speech in Marakesh, Morocco, in October 2010. “I think everyone is very much concerned about the future of Sudan. We must assist the Sudanese in finding a peaceful way through one of the most important passages in their country’s history. We have to make sure that these referenda on 9 January … [will] be conducted in the most fair, credible, democratic and, I think most importantly, peaceful manner.”

Democracy will face a simpler test to the north, in Egypt, where President Hosni Mubarak’s fifth consecutive term in office will come to a close in September. There has been widespread speculation that age and ailing health would convince him to stand down – he turns 83 in May 2011 – paving the way for his son, Gamal, to have a tilt at the presidency.

However, at the time of writing, it seemed most likely that Hosni Mubarak would stand again. If he does, he is certain to win a sixth victory. His strongest potential opponent is the former director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, Mohammed el-Baradei, but unless changes are made to the country’s constitution, it will be impossible for him to stand as he does not lead an established political party.

ElBaradei’s political authority had, in any case, been damaged in late 2010 when most opposition groups decided to ignore his call for a boycott of the parliamentary elections in November.

The ramifications of past elections has continued to disrupt the political life of several Gulf countries over the past year, and could well continue into 2011.

Through much of 2010, Iraq’s fractious political classes found it impossible to agree on the make up of a new government after elections in March failed to produce a clear majority for any party. Bahrain, meanwhile, suffered persistent unrest in the run-up to its parliamentary elections in October – much of it prompted by the arrest of a string of opposition politicians ahead of the poll. Several hundred people were rounded up, accused by the authorities of terrorism and threatening to overthrow the government. Many of those arrested, in turn, alleged they were tortured by the police.

The distrust and enmity caused by the clumsy repression could yet lead to more problems in the year ahead, but Bahrain’s allies in the region and beyond were happy to give the government the political cover it needed. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton issued a statement on 31 October congratulating the government “on the success of its parliamentary and municipal elections.” But she also added: “We are concerned by efforts in the lead-up to the elections to restrict freedom of expression.”

Nuclear fear with Iran

Of far greater concern to the US and its allies is the situation in Iran, particularly in regard to its alleged pursuit of nuclear weapons. Diplomatic efforts by the West to convince Iran to halt the processing of nuclear fuel have met with no success. Iran began loading fuel rods into its Bushehr nuclear plant in August 2010 and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has shown no desire to tone down his forthright tone on the world stage since then.

On a visit to Lebanon in mid-October 2010, he was in typical form, saying: “Iran and Lebanon have shared ideals and shared objectives and they are both placed at the same resistance front … The Zionist regime is on a slippery, highly slanting slope and no one is capable of saving it from its doomed downfall.”

He followed this in early November with a speech to the Asia Cooperation Dialogue meeting in Tehran, in which he called for a new world order.

However, the economic situation within Iran continues to deteriorate and could prompt some sustained problems for the government. International sanctions have been ratcheted up over the past year; inflation is believed to be rising again; and Tehran appears to be having difficulty selling its oil on international markets.

The long-promised removal of government subsidies for food and fuel will only exacerbate the problem of inflation. Given the scale of the opposition movement that formed in the wake of the disputed presidential elections in 2009, which was then brutally suppressed, Ahmadinejad’s government will have to tread carefully when dealing with its domestic audience.

Yemen terrorist threat

The GCC’s southern neighbour, Yemen, is another cause for concern, particularly in Riyadh. There are at least three groups that could, on their own, cause problems. Northern rebels, southern secessionists and the terrorist group Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) are all able to cause domestic disruption, but also, to varying degrees, export Yemen’s problems too.

The threat posed by AQAP was made clear in late October 2010 when two explosive devices were found in planes in Dubai and the UK, bound for the US. Both had originated in Yemen and were claimed by the group. Earlier that month, there was a rocket attack on the UK’s deputy ambassador to Sanaa, Fiona Gibb. While such efforts attract headlines in newspapers around the world, the low-level skirmishes inside the country garner far less attention, but are just as troubling. Jinny Hill, associate fellow at UK think-tank Chatham House, estimates there were 30 attacks on Yemeni security forces by AQAP militants from August to October alone.

While Saudi Arabia has perhaps most to worry about, due to its shared border with Yemen – which has been the scene of fighting and cross-border raids in the past year – other countries in the Gulf and beyond are increasingly concerned by the erosion of Sanaa’s authority.

It is not just terrorism that is the issue. The economic health of many countries could be badly disrupted if the political environment in Yemen continues to degrade. If Yemen was to join Somalia in the ranks of failed states, then the entrance to the Red Sea and its vital link to the Suez Canal would require heavy international patrolling to ensure that piracy does not become an even bigger problem than it already is.

“Yemen has long been regarded as a buffer zone between oil-rich Saudi Arabia and war-torn Somalia, which lies just 200 miles across the piracy-prone waters of the Gulf of Aden,” said Hill, in comments in early November. “Plummeting oil production and rising political tensions are now provoking questions about Yemen’s ability to maintain security and stability with ever fewer resources.”

Yemen is due to hold parliamentary elections in April 2011, although, given the political situation, there is a strong possibility that they will again be delayed.

Alongside the issues of Iran and Yemen, most of Washington’s diplomatic efforts in the region are likely to be focused on trying to maintain what little momentum there is for peace talks between Israel and the Palestinian government.

Israel and Palestine at loggerheads

Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas held meetings in Washington and Egypt in late 2010, but there has been little sign of significant compromise from either side and no agreed date for further talks.

“We’re intensively trying to get the parties back in negotiations,” said Philip Crowley, assistant secretary of state at the US State Department, speaking in Washington on 1 November. “We believe we have the right strategy, which is that only through a direct negotiation can the parties actually resolve the conflict once and for all. What we need to see is actual movement by the parties back into direct negotiations, and that is something that we are still intensively trying to achieve.”

But even if talks resume in the new year, it is doubtful whether either the Israeli or the Palestinian leader has the political strength to push through a deal. The critical issue of settlements is difficult for Netanyahu to address, given the hard-line opposition to any compromise by his foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman, whose Yisrael Beiteinu party is a key element of the country’s coalition government.

The political situation on Israel’s northern border could also provoke further anxieties next year. The UN tribunal investigating the assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq Hariri is due to report its findings by the end of 2010. When that happens, a number of high-ranking Hezbollah figures are expected to be implicated in the murder, which could, in turn, provoke a renewed round of political violence in Lebanon.

If that happens, it will mark a return to a path the country has followed many times in the past. The hope for the region is that other countries, including Sudan and the Palestinian territories, can avoid a similar fate.