by Daniel Martin Varisco, Middle East Muddle, Anthropology News, November, 2013

As President Franklin Delano Roosevelt prophesied, December 7th, 1941 is a day that lives in infamy, even some seven decades after the event that triggered United States entry into the Second World War. Another date of more recent infamy is December 17, 2010, when a harassed Tunisian vegetable hawker named Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire in front of the municipal building in the picturesque town of Sidi Bouzid. Although badly burned, he survived until January 4, just ten days before Ben Ali, the Tunisian dictator for some 23 years, boarded a plane for exile in Saudi Arabia. The first kind of infamy was the beginning of a devastating war, the second became the stimulus for what was hoped to be a sweeping political revolution across the Middle East. Three years later it seems to be politics as usual, a chilly seasonal change from the jasmine scent of the Arab Spring that blew across Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen and now swirls through the political maelstrom enveloping a surviving dictator in Syria, ongoing instability in Iraq and Afghanistan and a new regime outlook in Iran.

Seasoned pundits know that in many parts of the world spring’s prospects yield to the heat of summer, the cooling autumn and eventually the chilly reality of winter in a never-ending cycle. The Arab Spring is not one season fits all, but the overall effects have been more chilling than thrilling this year. In Tunisia the Islamic party leading the country is in a state of national paralysis following the July killing of opposition MP Mohamed Brahmi. In Egypt the elected president, Muhammad Morsi, remains in military custody and his major party of support, the Muslim Brotherhood, has been banned. The military, under General Sisi, has reinstated martial law in a move that most Egyptians, it seems, support. In both Tunisia and Egypt, the transition to power by Islamic groups who promised not to dismantle the civil state structure has angered a wide range of groups, especially secularists and more moderate Muslims.

Libya, once rockhard stable under the iron fist of Colonel Qaddafi in his four decades of rule, is divided into regional factions. The murder of the American ambassador, J. Christopher Stevens, only a little more than a year ago, exemplifies the lack of stability with armed groups of every persuasion at large in this sparsely populated North African state. Yet the oil flows out to the West.

Among the states that lost their dictators, Yemen has the most promising future. President Ali Abdullah Salih stepped down in early 2012 in a peace deal brokered by the Gulf Cooperation Council and followed up by the UN. It was a plush deal that grants Salih immunity and allows him to remain in Yemen, where he is actively engaged behind the scenes and still controls his former party, the General Peoples Congress. But this year there has been a National Dialogue Committee of over 500 individuals from every part of the population, including youth who started the revolution in the streets and women. Yemen has pressing problems of its own, with a major rebellion in the north pitting Zaydis against Saudi-backed Salafis, and a southern secessionist movement. Yet, for a country where much of the population is tribal and well armed, there has been relatively little violence apart from a few competing power brokers in the capital and the rise of an al-Qaeda group that has taken advantage of the instability following the fall of Salih. It is unlikely that a civil war will break out here, as it has in Somalia and Syria, but the dialogue has a rough road ahead. At least Yemenis are talking and there is hope that the traditional Yemeni focus on mediation will move the process forward.

Outside of the major players in the Arab Spring, the focus has shifted this year to the bloodshed in Syria where over 115,000 Syrians have died and more than two million have fled abroad in addition to the several million displaced within Syria. The civil war has paralyzed the economy and the lack of basic health services poses a major risk in exposure to disease, including a resurgence of polio. The poison gas issue, although accounting for only a small fraction of the overall death and destruction, has at least brought about diplomatic efforts brokered in part by Russia, the major supplier of arms to the Syrian regime. The horror in Syria, spilling over into nearby Lebanon and Jordan, has not yet brought the Israelis into military action, but the situation remains tense with no pragmatic end in sight. When was the last time you read anything about the Palestinians?

I have not mentioned Bahrain, where protests by the majority Shi’a population against the Sunni-led monarchy are barely covered in the international news, nor the rise of a new emir in Qatar, a country that flexes its vast sums of oil and gas wealth to influence the outcomes in all of the Arab Spring states. The ruling elite of the Ibn Saud family in Saudi Arabia is passing beyond the octogenarian stage, so look for change there beyond the ability of Saudi women to drive a Mercedes. As we enter the winter season here in America, it is well to remember the chilling effects of the current political instability in the Middle East and to hope that ongoing dialogues will not freeze but lead to a spring where change can be for the better, even if only a mild warming.