I’ve decided to restart the blog with the New Year, hopefully for good this time, and what better way to inaugurate 2014 than to set down a (slightly late) list of wildly inaccurate predictions about the next 12 months?
2013 was in many respects a disastrous year for the Middle East; in discussions with my colleagues and professors we have singularly failed to come up with any major positive stories other than the potential lightening of relations between Iran and the United States. The prospects for things being better regionally this year are good, but only because 2013 was so bleak.
1. In 2014, the international community will slowly come around to the idea of Bashar al-Asad staying in power in Syria. This is already happening to some extent – the major shift was the resolution of the chemical weapons issue, which implicitly acknowledged the government as an interlocutor. Just a few days ago, the Syrian government ‘accidentally’ revealed that a number of Western intelligence delegations have visited Damascus to co-ordinate anti-terror operations. Among rebel factions, the reputation damage done by Al-Qaeda-linked factions will drive many other groups to fight against them. In the long-term, this may succeed in forging some sort of vaguely cohesive oppositional structure, but over the course of this year it means more stories like this one from today.
2. Hungary will have elections before the end of June. Fidesz will win them with a vast majority. The opposition parties are still hopelessly divided and unable to effectively challenge Orbán’s increasingly catastrophic restructuring of the Hungarian state. Unless the economy seriously implodes I can’t see Fidesz losing control soon.
3. Barring his assassination or other untimely cause of death, General Sisi will still be in charge of Egypt this time next year. He may not be President as he has not yet said whether he’s running (although if he does he will undoubtedly win), but even if there is another President Sisi will still be the man running the show. Hopefully, this year will begin to see the spread of discontent with the military and with Sisi in particular, although Egyptian politics is so horrifically broken that it may take much longer. In any case, whatever government there is will not take the difficult economic decisions which Egypt needs and will probably be turfed out by revolution, coup, assassination, or whatever before the end of the decade.
4. There are two directions I can see Iraq moving in this year. The first is that a combination of international and domestic pressures and spirally violence may finally push Nouri al-Maliki from power in the elections in April, placing the Saudi-allied Iraqiya List in charge of the country and reordering the regional system to Iran’s severe disadvantage. If Maliki remains, expect the violence to surge.
5. There will be a major death in the region (besides Ariel Sharon), and although so many national leaders in the Middle East are elderly and infirm that this hardly seems like a prediction, most of them are in positions of national importance and their removal might present the best opportunity for unexpected upheaval this year. Shimon Peres (90) probably won’t die before his term is up this year, and as we have just seen, Israel has proven resilient to the mortality of its leaders. Ben Ali (77) and Mubarak (85) might well die, if only for judicial reasons, but I can’t see either of their deaths causing anything other than celebration at this point.
Oman’s Sultan Qaboos (73) is relatively sprightly, considering the competition, and is unlikely to die this year. But as the only leader of the modern state of Oman, his death without an heir will cause a great deal of uncertainty and tension, particularly if his chosen successor (whose name is sealed in an envelope, to be revealed only if three days of constitutional discussions after Qaboos’ death fail to yield a result) is less beloved nationally.
Saudi’s King Abdullah (at 89 the third-oldest head of state in the world), like most first-generation Saudi royals, is already well past his sell-by date and probably kept alive only by the most expensive American medicine available. But as a member of the Saudi royal family, trained for decades in the importance of stability and continuity, he has already picked his successor, Crown Prince Salman. Instability in the Kingdom may have to wait.
In Algeria, however, President Bouteflika (76) has spent more time in a French hospital than in Algeria over the last six years. He was selected in November last year as the FLN’s candidate for the April presidential elections, and le pouvoir would doubtless be delighted at the prospect of an absent, impotent president which allowed them to get on with running the country. There are rumours that Bouteflika will not accept the nomination. Given his immense frailty it would be frankly bizarre if the state machinery had not made preparations in terms of who will succeed him. Nevertheless, the coincidence of the presidential elections and Bouteflika’s death must be making everyone nervous, and there is the possibility of an upsurge in unrest if the process by which a successor is chosen is too obviously rigged.
Finally, Jalal Talabani (80), Iraq’s President, has been in hospital in Germany for over a year and seems unlikely to recover except by death. His extended absence has been a contributing factor towards Maliki getting wildly out of hand. Talabani’s relevance is less as a leader (he is only a figurehead) but more as the representative of Iraqi Kurdistan. When he dies, the Kurdish parties will have even less of a stake in the central government than they already do. Removing Talabani will probably not lead directly to a declaration of Kurdish independence, but it may be part of the process.
Of course, in the long term, all of these leaders are mortal – no matter how much some of them might wish us to believe otherwise – and these problems will eventually have to be confronted. It doesn’t really matter whether it happens this year or not.