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.
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.
3. Israel. The Israelis have a lot on their plate. An Iranian nuclear program that many of their political elite publicly view as an existential threat, political change in Egypt that has called into question the durability of the 30-year cold peace underlined by the Camp David accords, and an increasingly militant religious right at home that is calling into question the very notion of what it means to be Israeli. While the likelihood of continued saber rattling both from and directed at Iran (high) is a pretty safe bet, Israel's relationship with neighbors is far harder to predict. Senior members of the Muslim Brotherhood, the rising star of post-Mubarak Egypt, have expressed opposition to the treaty with Israel while referring to Israel as a "criminal entity" and the like. But the organization, seeking to consolidate its influence inside Egypt and wary of any moves that might give the powerful Egyptian military a pretext for a crackdown, is likely to move cautiously in the matter. Perhaps most interesting to my mind is the internal debate in Israel over how to handle religious extremists, who have used so-called "price tag" operations (burning mosques, for instance) to oppose giving up control over parts of the West Bank, and have engaged in minor stone throwing attacks on Israeli military posts that have carried great symbolic weight. An incident of ultra-orthodox activists spitting on an 8-year-old Jewish girl walking to school (for the crime of not wearing sufficiently modest dress) in December reignited the national debate. In 2011, the country's parliament passed laws restricting free speech, by seeking to criminalize calls for boycotts of products produced in West Bank settlements, and sought to restrict the independence of the judiciary.
4. Iran. Last year the Iranian nuclear program suffered setbacks, from the Stuxnet computer virus that damaged the country's ability to enrich uranium, to the Obama Administrations successful effort to impose far tougher financial sanctions on the country. Global oil markets grew increasingly nervous about the possibility of war, particularly towards the end of the year as Iran began to threaten to close to the Strait of Hormuz, a vital conduit for Gulf oil to the rest of the world. While Iran couldn't turn off the spout, and if it tried war would probably become inevitable, a major crisis would almost lead to a sharp spike in oil prices. New sanctions on Iran's central bank could lead to economic chaos in the country. Iran's currency, the riyal, lost 10 percent of its value to the dollar after President Obama signed into law a bill sanctioning the country's central bank and international entities that trade with it. That raises the prospects of not just financial turmoil in Iran, but sharp increases in poverty and questions about the government's ability to deliver on subsidies that millions of Iranians rely on. If that happens, will Iran's leaders meekly concede on their nuclear program, or begin seeking means to strike out against their external enemies? Increasing the tension is US electoral politics; a number of the candidates for the Republican presidential nomination have openly said they'd consider military action against Iran as commander in chief.
5. Iraq. Many Americans are already putting the war, and the country itself, in the rear view mirror. But 2012 will be crucial for understanding the Iraq that's emerged as a consequence of the 2003 invasion. With the American combat role conclusively over, the country's Sunni and Shiite Arabs and its ethnic Kurds are going to vie for power and influence without the overshadowing presence of Uncle Sam. Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki wasted little time after US troops left in December before he targeted one of the country's most important Sunni politicians, Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi, for arrest on charges of running a death squad, an allegation that Mr. Hashemi dismissed as politically motivated after fleeing to the relative safety of autonomous Iraqi Kurdistan. Many Iraq watchers closed out the year deeply worried that a return to sectarian war is possible -- though there are also powerful disincentives against that, not least the over 100,000 people that have died already in Iraq's war. Even if open warfare is avoided, the risks of a new autocracy solidifying -- this time a Shiite Islamist one, rather than the secular Sunni-led Baathists of Saddam Hussein's era -- are real.
6. Syria. The country's war over the regime of Bashar al-Assad grew ever bloodier as 2011 went on, with at least 6,000 dead in political violence over the course of the year. A small group of monitors sent to Syria in December by the Arab League to verify an end to bloodshed appeared to have little effect, with Syrian human rights groups claiming over 200 fresh killings after they had arrived in the country. For the short term, the outlook is grim. Mr. Assad has given no indication of being willing to step down, and there have been worrying reports of sectarian killings carried out by some of his opponents. His regime draws on the minority Alawite sect Assad belongs to for support, and both Bashar al-Assad and his father and predecessor Hafez al-Assad have targeted Sunni Islamists with ferocity over the decades. There is a lot of dry sectarian tinder on the ground there. While many are loathe to say Syria is in a civil war, it already has thousands of violent deaths in the uprising and a group calling itself the Free Syrian Army, composed of army defectors, targeting the regime. If 2012 continues the trajectory of 2011, civil war looks very likely -- which could effect the stability of neighbors.