from Middle East Matters and Middle East Program

Middle East Matters: The Ten Most Significant Developments of 2011

December 13, 2011

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Thousands of Egyptian anti-government protesters celebrate inside Tahrir Square after the announcement of Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak's resignation in Cairo on February 11, 2011 (Amr Abdallah Dalsh/Courtesy Reuters).

Here it is: the first annual "Middle East Matters" year-end roundup listing the ten most significant Middle East developments of the year. As 2011 was such a tumultuous year in the region, almost any one of these items could have been deemed the most significant development in a “normal” year. So identifying significant developments is relatively easy. The hard part is winnowing down the events to just ten. Consistent with the blog’s theme of focusing on the interplay between U.S. foreign policy and the region, these were the items that were most significant from a U.S. foreign policy perspective. So in roughly chronological order are MEM’s top ten developments of 2011:

1. Mohamed Bouazizi’s Self-Immolation and Death

Tunisian vegetable vendor Mohamed Bouazizi’s self-immolation and consequent death two weeks later sparked an uprising in Tunisia that quickly spread to Egypt, Bahrain, and touched nearly all of the twenty-two Arab states. The ultimate sacrifice motivated by a twenty-six year-old vendor’s rage, frustration, and humiliation spoke to millions of Arabs who identified with his story in one way or another. His message was simple: Enough! The status quo is intolerable.

Bouazizi himself had been rejected for numerous jobs and for a slot in the army. Resigned to vegetable vending to feed himself and his family, the effects of the confiscation of his unlicensed cart by a policewoman on December 17 were devastating. Bouazizi was unable to pay the ten dinar fine and in response the policewoman slapped him, spat on him, and insulted his family. When the disparaged vendor attempted to levy an official complaint, he was refused to be seen at the provincial headquarters. Desperate, demeaned, and without any hope for the future, Bouazizi lit himself on fire outside of the headquarters. He died in the hospital a few weeks later on January 4. He would not know that his act of defiance would resonate from the Atlantic to the Gulf of Aden.

2. Mubarak’s Toppling

For years, Hosni Mubarak’s Egypt had come to represent the stability, stasis, and primacy of the modern Arab state. Officials and democracy activists had argued for some time that Egypt’s political sclerosis and failure to change was unsustainable. They were right. But nobody could tell precisely when and how change would occur. A staple of Middle East leadership, Mubarak had been comfortably in control since he assumed his post as Egypt’s fourth president in 1981. Most people tended to think that Egypt would encounter unrest after Mubarak left the scene, not while he was still at the helm.

Two Egyptian developments seem to have precipitated the angry outpouring in January that continues to flood Tahrir Square some eleven months later. First, the November 2010 parliamentary elections were so glaringly rigged that the whole idea of Mubarak as reformer lost its last shred of credibility. To add to that were the preparations to instill his son, Gamal, as his successor. So when Tunisians threw off the corrupt Ben Ali in January, the call for Mubarak’s ouster no longer seemed too dramatic or audacious.

Given Egypt’s political, historical, and cultural clout, Mubarak’s ouster has huge implications geopolitically within the Middle East and for U.S. foreign policy in the region. Mubarak was one of the United States’ closest and most critical allies in the Middle East. The fact that the Obama administration broke with him so precipitously has worried other regional allies, including Israel. It is unclear what the current uncertainty surrounding Egypt’s elections portends for the country’s future. But one thing is for certain, Mubarak’s toppling by the thousands amassed in Tahrir Square has thrust Egypt back into the center of inter-Arab politics, and has made Cairo once again the political and intellectual hub and laboratory for Middle East politics.

3. GCC Sending Troops into Bahrain

The Arab uprisings did not avoid the Gulf, and led to weeks of demonstrations in Manama’s Pearl Square. However, in March, after weeks in which Bahrain’s Shiite majority population staged protests against the Sunni monarchy, the Bahraini leadership and its regional allies responded decisively and harshly. On March 14, about two thousand troops--1,200 from Saudi Arabia and 800 from the UAE--entered Bahrain under the aegis of the Gulf Cooperation Council. The decision to send troops marked the first time the council used collective military action to put down a popular uprising in their own back yard. The intervention was justified as an act against Iranian intervention. And indeed, there was Iranian meddling involved. Yet it also appears that the intervention, thwarting an effort by the country’s crown prince to foster a national dialogue, helped exacerbate, rather than reduce, the kingdom’s sectarian divide. The GCC’s action, as underscored by a Saudi official’s statement that “Bahrain will get whatever assistance it needs--it’s open-ended,” demonstrated the Sunni Gulf monarchies’ unwillingness to take any chances, especially after they perceived their U.S. ally as having too rapidly abandoned Hosni Mubarak in Egypt.

4. Violent Uprisings in Syria

Syria was one of the last Arab countries to feel the effects of the Arab uprisings. In fact, most people doubted that Syrians would challenge the authoritarian rule of Bashar al-Assad. The Syrian president’s father proved that the Assads would tolerate no dissent, and used the most brutal means when he killed some 30,000 Syrians in 1982 during the Hama uprising. Yet as this year’s regional uprisings gained greater momentum throughout the winter and early spring, protests slowly began cropping up throughout the country--a testament to the braveness and strength of the Syrian people. Seven months later, Syria has now apparently entered a brutal civil war, with Assad’s Alawite-led military using crushing brutality to put down the unrest. Bordering Israel, Turkey, Iraq, Jordan, and Lebanon, and as the only Arab state allied with Iran, Syria’s regional centrality cannot be overstated. So far, both the Obama administration and the Europeans have managed to keep Syria from dominating their foreign policy priorities. Look to Syria to emerge as one of the key regional issues of 2012, along with Egypt.

5. Death of bin Laden

Bin Laden’s death on May 2 brought with it a close to a decade-long search for the mastermind of the attacks on September 11. In this sense, it marked a turning point in the U.S.-led “War Against Terror.” It marks the end to a decade in which U.S. foreign policy centered on counter-terrorism and the aftermath of 9/11. Perhaps what was most striking about bin Laden’s death is how little resonance it had within the Middle East. The Arab world had moved on, and bin Laden’s legacy is more likely to be greater in the West than in the Middle East. The foreign policy terrain in the Middle East is entirely new; the hunt for the mass murderer of innocent Americans is no longer the main focal point. However, with drone strikes and counter-terrorism operations continuing in Yemen and elsewhere, elements from the post-9/11 era endure.

6. President Obama’s Middle East Speech in May

On May 19, President Obama gave a long-awaited speech in which he provided the U.S. vision for the unrest sweeping the Middle East. Though the speech was meant to provide a broad vision for U.S. foreign policy in the region going forward, the speech was eclipsed by his treatment of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict—primarily by his articulation of the 1967 lines with mutually-agreed upon land swaps as the basis for an agreement on borders going forward and the U.S. vision for Israel as a secure Jewish state and Palestine as a sovereign homeland for the Palestinian people.

However novel President Obama’s comments on Israel-Palestinian peacemaking were, what was most interesting was what the speech omitted. Though Obama laid out his vision for an Israeli-Palestinian agreement, he failed to outline a diplomatic path forward to resolve the conflict. Also telling was that in the days immediately following the speech, Senator Mitchell, the special envoy for Middle East peace Obama appointed during the first week of his presidency, stepped down. Since then, U.S. efforts to resolve the conflict have taken a backseat. Instead of U.S. diplomacy leading the way, Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas’s efforts to achieve statehood at the UN is the major driving action on the Israeli-Palestinian front.

7. Arab League Activism

Since its founding in 1945, the Arab League has impressed few. Until this year, the moribund pan-Arab organization had been marked as doing little more than issuing lowest common denominator communiqués. However, the organization showed the first signs of perking up in February with its call to suspend Libya from the organization in response to Qaddafi’s slaughtering his own people. The Arab League followed up this action by sanctioning a Western intervention in Libya, without which it is highly unlikely that the United Nations Security Council would have provided the "all means necessary" justification for international intervention. The Arab League has maintained its newfound activism with actions not only to suspend Syria from the league but also to impose sanctions on Assad’s regime. Such steps are novel for the organization, and could portend a future within which the Arab League emerges as a serious regional player.

8. Qaddafi’s Killing

Having seized power in a bloodless coup in 1969, Qaddafi enjoyed forty years of rule until his fall from power in August and death on October 20. A former ally of the United States, Qaddafi’s toppling and killing represents a dramatic regional development. It is also a key test case of the U.S. approach to have other countries--in this case the European powers within NATO--take the lead in an intervention. For four decades, Libya was Qaddafi, and Qaddafi was Libya. He gutted the country of effective government and institutions. Now, the international community is engaged in a nation-building exercise, fulfilling former secretary of state Powell’s dictum--you break it, you bought it.

9. Tunisia’s Elections

As the country that kicked off the waves of popular revolt, Tunisia has come to embody the spirit of the Arab uprisings. As the first country to overthrow its leader, it will remain a focal point for the region and the world. The Tunisian elections, the first elections of the Arab uprisings, have rightly warranted much attention. Approximately 4,300,000 people registered out of a possible 8,290,000 eligible voters for the October 23 elections. The secretary general of the independent commission that organized the vote announced that out of those registered, 90 percent actually turned out to vote and the elections were widely heralded as successful. They matter both because of the emotional weight they carry but also because of who won; the Islamist al-Nahda party won a majority 89 seats in the constituent assembly elections. And in doing so, it has embarked on a new experiment--a coalition government with non-Islamist parties. Especially in light of developments elsewhere in the region, Tunisia represents a new challenge for U.S. foreign policy in the region: how to handle Islamism in democratic settings.

10. The Departure of U.S. troops from Iraq

For nearly a decade, the American invasion of Iraq has dominated U.S. foreign policy. Nearly four thousand five hundred Americans, not to mention more than one hundred thousand Iraqis lost their lives following the March 2003 invasion. President Obama’s announcement on October 21 that “the rest of our troops in Iraq will come home by the end of the year” and claim that “after nearly nine years, America’s war in Iraq is over” is a major regional development, particularly in light of the inroads that neighboring Iran has made into its Arab neighbor. President Obama told Prime Minister Maliki in October that the United States would adhere to an earlier pledge to pull the remaining forty thousand U.S. troops from the country by the end of 2011. The danger from this troop drawdown is a potential backslide into radicalism in Iraq. The other risk is that Iran’s influence will expand further to fill the void left by the U.S. presence in the country.

More on:

United States

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