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Middle East in 2012? Egypt and Iran and Syria and... oh, my.

Last year was momentous, but the region may just be getting warmed up.

By Staff writer / January 2, 2012

Syrian activists at a candlelight vigil in Beirut, Lebanon hold up a sign saying "2012 Syria is free."

Bilal Hussein/AP


Prediction is a losing game. But 2012 could prove as momentous for Middle Eastern politics as 2011. Egypt and Libya will be fighting to establish new orders after years of autocracy, Syria's war to oust Bashar al-Assad could erupt into an even more violent conflict, and the pressure for change from Bahrain to Iran remains unmet.

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Below is an incomplete list of trends and stories I expect to spend time watching and writing about in 2012.

1. Egypt: The country's stunning uprising in early 2011 pushed Hosni Mubarak from power. But the powerful military quickly stepped in to run the country's transition. The country's Parliamentary elections (a three-stage affair that will trundle on for another week yet) have been far fairer than under Mubarak or his predecessors. The Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party has, by far, done the best of all the contenders. But what this will mean for Egypt's mid-term future will only begin to be sorted out in the year ahead. The military retains enormous power and has signaled repeatedly that it won't tolerate efforts to bring it under full civilian control. Whether democracy -- or even a true revolution leading to something less than democracy -- is possible while the military continues to hold itself apart from, and above, Egypt's political process is an open question. The current schedule is for a Presidential election in mid-summer, and a new Constitution to also be written this year, and perhaps be put up for a referendum by the fall. The military and its allies have been seeking to limit the new Parliament's authority to write that document, and the activist hard core remains furious that the Mubarak-era emergency law, used to try civilian activists in military courts, remains in force. The year ahead is likely to be marked by the battle between civilian and military control, and it could well be bloody again, if the recent military-backed crackdowns on protesters and NGOs are anything to go by. With a Parliament seated that is likely to have Islamists as the largest bloc, there is also going to be a lot more clarity about the direction they'd like to take Egypt, with frequent promises of tolerance and inclusion finally tested against the legislation they pursue.

2. Libya: What is going to happen in Libya is even more of a mystery than what comes next for Egypt. Beyond its Oil Ministry, the country had few functioning institutions under Muammar Qaddafi. Since his defeat and murder at the hands of angry revolutionaries this fall, Libya's array of militias, tribal notables and politicians have struggled to arrive at a consensus on how to transition to accountable institutions. Over a dozen regionally-based militias who fought against Qaddafi remain armed and outside any kind of central government control. In late 2011 there were a handful of brief skirmishes between armed groups who fought against Qaddafi for control of government installations (like the Tripoli airport) and the risk of open warfare remains. The good news for Libya is its vast oil wealth, particularly relative to the size of the population. But elections are as yet unscheduled and dealing with decades of grievances, as well as the question of how much former Qaddafi loyalists will be allowed to participate in public life going forward, remain explosive issues that will have to be addressed in 2012.


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