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2013: In the Middle East, the 'Arab Spring' unravels

It was a tough year, led by the horrific death toll of the Syrian civil war. Many of the same challenges face 2014 - but with a possible bright spot in an interim nuclear deal with Iran.

By Staff writer / December 31, 2013

Female supporters of ousted President Mohamed Morsi stood inside the defendants’ cage in a courtroom in Alexandria, Egypt, on, Dec. 7. Egypt’s military deposed Mr. Morsi in favor of Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Sisi.

Eman Helal/AP

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As 2013 draws to a close, Monitor foreign correspondents look back on the global stories that had the greatest impact on the regions they cover. These stories, and the deeper trends that they reflect, are certain to remain in the headlines into the new year. We bring you tales of military posturing, democratic backsliding, and the death of a strongman. Watch this space for more in 2014. And click on the list of stories on the left hand side of this article for more year in review pieces from around the world.

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The most consequential Middle East story of the year was the dramatic unraveling of the so-called Arab Spring and its promise of democratic change.

In a stunning reversal, Egypt's Tahrir Square – that epicenter of 2011 protests demanding more freedom – became a rallying point for a military crackdown on Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood, the country's first democratically elected leader. Citing popular discontent, Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Sisi led a coup against Mr. Morsi after his first year in office.

In the tense weeks that followed, supporters of Morsi and backers of Sisi staged dueling protests. With Sisi at the helm, hundreds of pro-Morsi supporters were killed in clashes with security forces. But there was little public outcry. Many Egyptians elevated Sisi to almost legendary status, seeing him as able to restore stability after recent economic and political uncertainty, much of which they blamed on the Muslim Brotherhood's monopolization of power.

The backlash against political Islam in Egypt has already created ripple effects across the region. Most notably, the Islamist Ennahda party in Tunisia faced rising pressure, with opponents echoing the criticisms leveled against the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. In September, Ennahda was forced to announce that it would turn power over to a caretaker government, which was finalized in December and is expected to oversee elections next year.

But both Egypt and Tunisia are far better off than Syria, where protesters calling for better government have been crushed by the regime of President Bashar al-Assad, with more than 100,000 killed and nearly a third of Syrians pushed from their homes in a grueling civil war.

The fallout from the Arab uprising will remain a key story in 2014. Egypt will put its draft constitution to a public referendum, setting the stage for elections. How the US grapples with the democratic challenge in Egypt – a top recipient of US foreign aid – will send a strong message about American priorities in the region.

But that story could be eclipsed if the interim deal between Tehran and world powers succeeds in curbing Iran's nuclear program in exchange for easing sanctions. An Iran released from the economic toll of isolation could become a much stronger player in the region. That would have far-reaching consequences for US allies such as Saudi Arabia and Israel.

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