If any year showed the difficulty of making predictions in the Middle East, it was 2011.
Yemen, the Arab world’s poorest nation, has been wrecked by months of political turmoil and unrest. A popular uprising against longtime President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s rule Photo: EPA
The direction of travel, though, is not that hard to see: after all, one thing most Middle East-watchers agreed a year ago was that in many countries the status quo was unsustainable. That remains the case.
Syria is where an unstoppable force is confronting an immovable object. The protesters who staged a few angry demonstrations in the remotest parts of the country nine months ago have become a seething tide of unrest, killing and being killed with little quarter. Yet still President Bashir al-Assad refuses to budge, pursuing his own “path to reform” – a path that has been pursued without a clear goal for over a decade.
He still claims to be the subject of a vast international conspiracy – just as Hosni Mubarak and Muammar Gaddafi did before him, to little success.
Despite the violence, his friends are not abandoning him, and with Iran on hand to provide financial and even military support, and Russia providing diplomatic cover, there is no immediate prospect of his overthrow. But as capital flees to more promising destinations, and a second summer of violence turns a stagnant economy into a malignant one, its important Sunni business elite may start to seek other options. If the Assad regime is still there in a year, it will be lucky. If Syria has avoided what could be the nastiest of all the civil wars of the Arab Spring, it will be luckier.
Egypt’s transition was less painful than that of its neighbour Libya, but only because the country was already politically rudderless, under a president who was never strong and had lost what vision he had long before his overthrow.
It will take more than a year for Egypt to be cleansed of the poisons which festered under his long reign – grinding poverty, sectarianism, Islamist fanaticism, and police brutality.
The Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party look certain to win the country’s convoluted election, and secularists, Christians and the western world are hoping that it forms a coalition with some of the more liberal parties. That will not end the continuing conflict with the army, which is determined to cling on to its power and its privileges.
More worrying is that no coalition would be able to bring the economic relief that Egypt desperately needs, and the Salafis and other radicals, who do not even have a coherent economic policy, will be the most obvious beneficiaries of the resulting disillusion.
Libya was always a land of extremes, and Col Gaddafi only served to give that aspect of its nature a pantomime feel. There is no pantomime in Libya now, but the predictable outcomes for Libya’s future remain very different.
On the one hand there is a real possibility that Libya will re-descend into civil strife. There are regular gunfights between different militias in and around Tripoli. More worrying, these are starting to take on an ideological tone. The reason the Zintan and Misurata brigades are so keen not to leave the capital is because they fear that the Islamists who play a powerful role there, and in Benghazi, are trying to seize the reins of power that they have not won politically.
On the other hand, the backers of the different sides – Qatar for the Islamists, Britain and France for the secularists – are friendly nations. If they can preserve a balance of peace rather than war Libya’s rebound could be remarkable – its oil is starting to come on-stream, it will at some point have access to tens of billions of dollars in overseas reserves currently frozen under anti-Gaddafi sanctions, and it has a keen and often well-educated public who mostly just want to get back to work.
Yemen suffered the most unreal revolution. It did eventually manage to force its president of three decades, Ali Abdullah Saleh, to resign. An opposition leader is now interim prime minister.
But has anything really changed? Among those who turned against Mr Saleh were his cousin, Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar, his long-term security chief. He will not disappear from the political scene. Nor will any of the other competing elements of Yemeni society that serve to undermine its unity, governance and economic future – its semi-independent tribes, the social prevalence of weaponry and the narcotic qat, and its Islamists of competing hues of radicalism from the Shia Houthi warriors of the north, to the fundamentalists who control the formal opposition, and to the Al-Qaeda cells dotted around the country.
Yemen is the poorest country in the Arab world and increasingly short not just of money but of basics like water. President Saleh had long ceased to offer a solution, and few will mourn his passing. But it is hard to see anyone else with a solution either.
The monarchies of the Saudi peninsula showed once again this year why they are in the Middle East but not part of it. Different rules apply.
They played a huge role in events in North Africa: the Libyan revolution was bank-rolled by Qatar, while Saudi money continues to fund Islamist movements, peaceful and violent, across the region.
But they look supremely able to continue to weather the occasional protests – particularly in Saudi Arabia’s Shia east and in Oman – that have dogged them this year. Even in Bahrain, the one Gulf state to have seen the Arab Spring in full cry, the authorities have been able to apply sufficient brute force to remain firmly in control.
That does not mean they can sleep untroubled. The prospect of a war involving Iran, which is threatening to cut off oil routes, and the worldwide economic crisis present a more existential threat to their future than even democracy.