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Deposed Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi stands behind bars during his trial in Egypt (c) picture-alliance/AP
Image: picture-alliance/AP

The Middle East in 2013

Viktoria Kleber, Nils Naumann / gsw
December 28, 2013

A military coup in Egypt, assassinations in Tunisia, civil war in Syria: The Middle East saw heavy power struggles this year. DW reviews key developments in countries still grappling with the effects of the Arab Spring.


Egypt: The old guard returns

Mohammed Morsi is furious. Standing upright in his cage, he shouts at the judge in an unwavering voice, "You have no right to convict me. I'm your president!"

The deposed Egyptian president has been on trial since November on charges of conspiracy to murder. If he's found guilty, he faces life in jail or the death penalty.

Just recently he was serving as the country's democratically elected leader; now he's being tried as a criminal. Morsi is the region's biggest political loser this year. In July 2013 the Egyptian military put an end to Morsi's brief rule, following massive demonstrations.

"Egypt's old regime is back in power," comments Guido Steinberg, a Middle East expert at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP).

The Muslim Brotherhood, which until a few months ago held both the presidency, with Morsi, and a parliamentary majority, is now banned. The leaders of the political alliance have all been arrested, and thousands of their supporters have been killed.

"The military regime is now taking very decisive action to destroy the Muslim Brotherhood," says Guido Steinberg, "more decisive than Mubarak [Ed. note: Hosni Mubarak, the Egyptian president deposed in 2011] ever was on the matter."

Egyptian military's Commander in Chief Abdel Fattah al-Sisi
The head of Egypt's military, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, appointed the country's current leaderImage: picture-alliance/dpa

The country's military has gone after both sides of the political spectrum: the Muslim Brotherhood on the right, and liberal revolutionaries on the left. The latter have taken little action in response. They're both tired and frustrated from the enduring struggle for power in Egypt.

Although many observers are skeptical, the Egyptian military has repeatedly given assurances that it does not want to remain in power indefinitely. The Military Council says it plans to have a new constitution in place in 2014, which will be followed by parliamentary and presidential elections. Until then, interim President Adli Mansur, appointed by the Egyptian army's Commander-in-Chief Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, will continue to govern the country.

Tunisia: Hardening fronts

The Arab Spring began in 2011 in Tunisia. The first election brought the moderate Islamists of the Ennahda party to power. Its leaders have trembled at the political developments in Egypt. The fate of the Muslim Brotherhood there represents a nightmare for Tunisian Islamists.

Women holding Tunisian flags take part in a demonstration (c) Reuters
Tunisian leaders are acutely aware that protesters could topple the government againImage: Reuters

Meanwhile, the country is facing its own share of problems. In late July 2013, the left-wing opposition figure Mohammed Brahmi was murdered. Members of Ennahda blamed radical Salafists, while Tunisia's opposition party has implicated Ennahda itself. Brahmi's death mobilized tens of thousands of Tunisians to take to the streets in protest.

In order to avoid an escalation of the protests, Ennahda ultimately agreed to a "national dialogue" with the opposition. This is set to involve a new constitution, a reform of voting laws and, ultimately, fresh elections.

But moving ahead with those plans has proved difficult. Until now, the country's parties have been unable to agree on a new prime minister.

Tunisia offers a second case in which the party leaders ousted in the 2011 revolution still have strong influence with the country's security personnel. "Ennahda is cooperating with the old powers in the country," says Middle East expert Hamadi El-Aouni of the Free University of Berlin.

Libya: Powerless central government

Libya has descended deeper and deeper into chaos in 2013. The authority of its central government scarcely extends beyond the borders of the capital, Tripoli. Militias control the rest of the country, where regional powers and representatives of divergent ideologies violently struggle for power.

"It's a civil war of various tribes and regions," explains Hamadi El-Aouni.

Ali Zeidan speaking from behind a desk (c) picture-alliance/dpa
Interim Prime Minister Ali Zeidan heads a government with little powerImage: picture-alliance/dpa

The central government is powerless against the militias, as even interim Prime Minister Ali Zeidan has admitted. In October, he was kidnapped for several hours by one such militia. He and the General National Congress, the parliament elected democratically in summer 2012, face massive criticism. Their critics say they've done little to address the country's problems.

Zeidan's period as interim head of state comes to an end in February 2014. He has yet to even begin his intended task, which is to work out a constitution. A 60-person constitutional commission isn't scheduled to be chosen until 2014.

But the analyst El-Aouni does not believe that Libya's old powers will return to the helm. "They no longer exist; they're gone," he says. "Neutralized, or out of the country."

Syria: The civil war continues

Syrian leader Bashar Assad is once again sitting firmly in the saddle. In 2013, the Syrian army was able to recapture a number of rebel strongholds.

"The army controls up to around 80 percent of the territory again," says El-Aouni.

A tank operated by the Syrian army (c) AFP/Getty Images
2013 proved a good year for Syrian leader Bashar Assad and his forcesImage: AFP/Getty Images

Politically, Assad is also no longer as isolated as he was in 2012. He's indispensible to those who would seek a peace treaty in the country, and his deal on destroying Syrian chemical weapons arsenals turned him into a negotiation partner for the West. Furthermore, after the vacillations of 2013, it seems clear that in the near term at least there will be no military campaign against the country from abroad.

"The Americans aren't daring to try a war," says El-Aouni.

Meanwhile, the opposition in Syria is more splintered than ever. It is divided into various groups and associations rooted both within and beyond the country. In some cases, the groups are now fighting against each other. Over the course of the year, many have grown even more radical.

No end in sight for the revolution

Military coups, assassinations, civil war - 2013 was a tumultuous year in the Middle East. But that comes as no surprise to the SWP's Guido Steinberg, who says, "The beginning of the Arab Spring in 2011 was just the prelude to a series of years in which changes are taking place. Of course, we're not going to like all of them."

However, the researcher sees little reason for resignation, saying that, on the whole, the region is undergoing a "positive development." In his view, the Middle East will profit in the long term from the revolutionary movements that began in 2011, likely resulting in the end in a region that's more democratic than ever before.

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