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Obama's pivot to Asia? Middle East will still demand attention in 2013.

The popular unrest of the last two years has left the Middle East volatile as 2013 kicks off.

By Staff writer / December 31, 2012

Protesters opposing President Mohamed Mursi shout slogans as they demonstrate in front of the presidential palace, where Republican Guard Force tanks have been deployed, in Cairo December 18.

Khaled Abdullah/Reuters

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Boston

Nearly four years ago, President Barack Obama addressed a packed, enthusiastic crowd at Cairo University and promised a "new beginning" between the United States and the Muslim world.

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In that speech, Mr. Obama outlined a vision for a new era of economic cooperation in the Middle East, one of steadfast US support for democracy, and of reset priorities.

"I've come here to Cairo to seek a new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world, one based on mutual interest and mutual respect," he said then.

While Obama ended the war in Iraq on a schedule provided to him by his predecessor, George W. Bush, many of the promises in that speech went unfulfilled. The Guantánamo Bay military prison was never closed. Progress on peace between Palestinians and Israelis was not made. The promised economic development of Afghanistan, beset by a war that Obama now looks set to end in 2014, never took root.

Nevertheless, four years later, he's got his new beginning – not by his own hand, and not the one he would have either imagined or wanted when he made his series of stirring promises in Cairo.

The self-immolation and death of Mohamed Bouazizi in Tunisia in December 2010 led to the sharpest change in the politics of the Middle East since the 1960s. The events of the past year in Egypt, Syria, Tunisia, and Libya have cemented a radical new reality that Obama will have to contend with in his second term.

For all the talk of a US strategic "pivot" to Asia, a dramatically changed Middle East looks set to suck up a huge portion of American diplomatic energy and attention in the coming years. Old, comfortable patterns of dealing with regional dictators like Egypt's Hosni Mubarak and Tunisia's Zine El Abidine Ben Ali have been severely disrupted. Islamists, long feared by the US, have since won power in free elections in Egypt and Tunisia, and are among those fighting the secular regime in Syria.

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