A decade filled with social media-fueled protests and movements across the Middle East and North Africa provided some memorable moments and quotes from regional leaders, some struggling to keep pace with the expectations on the street.
New York – It may well be that the Arab Spring took flight when a Tunisian street vendor, Mohamed Bouazizi, set himself on fire on December, 17, 2010 but nearly a decade later that event seems more like the end of the beginning rather than the beginning of the end for the region’s many storylines.
Here are a few memorable quotes and commentary that capture both the promise and peril that may lie ahead for the region in 2020:
It’s worth noting that Hariri’s comment is from 2018, too. Perhaps nowhere in the region are the expectations for genuine change higher than in today’s Lebanon where a government debt default remains a real possibility. Money and time may be running out to lay the foundation for a post-sectarian civil society that can thrive in a seemingly post-Islamist digital age.
Tunisia continues to blaze a path in MENA for a durable civil society while keeping seats available at the table for a wide collection of political and faith-based parties. A newly chosen prime minister, Habib Jemli, will have to navigate several challenges, including creating leaner government budgets and fighting chronic high youth unemployment.
Morocco continues to be a faith trendsetter in the region. The kingdom may have a long way to go toward gender equality but the morchidate and morchidine training program represents a sound long-term investment.
Al-Sisi has been able to thread the needle so far; slowly reviving a moribund economy, combating militant extremism while tactically collaborating with the religious establishment, and slowly rebuilding Egyptian civil society. In 2016, he famously implored Egyptians, “Don’t listen to anybody but me!”
Through sheer willpower, the Turkish president is making his nation a preeminent power broker on the bridge between Europe and the Middle East. He is a master of dramatic statements. In just the past three years Erdoğan has expanded Turkish security cooperation with Qatar, seized co-leadership of any post-conflict nation-building efforts in Syria as well as a proposal for the deployment of Turkish troops to Libya to help stabilize the UN-recognized government.
2019 saw modest economic growth, the opening of a high-speed train line, and separate visits by the Pope and Ivanka Trump. The king’s decentralization/
MbS has managed to conclude a lucrative ARAMCO public offering last month following the 2018 Khashoggi murder scandal. The tentative steps to move beyond the blockade of Qatar, (possible) modest détente with Iran in 2020, and a gradual disengagement from active conflict in Yemen will give Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states a golden opportunity: a second chance to make a first impression.
Libya’s sad decent into civil war since 2014 includes something for everyone to loathe, from competing big power interests to foreign mercenaries to human trafficking networks. Libya in 2020 will present the United Nations, the European Union, NATO, the Arab league and others with a genuine test of their ability to build a durable peace. At the close of 2019, it’s hard to be optimistic.
The decade featured an off-and-on debate over Muslim women’s rights and freedom of personal expression in the Islamic world and beyond, from women challenging local burkini bans on French beaches to US Representative Ihan Omar wearing her hijab on the floor of the House of Representatives—a first. And lots of heated rhetoric, often from men.
But progress is real across the board. The Saudi government now allows women to drive. Nike plans to release a line of women’s full-body swimsuits (hijab, tunic top, leggings) that combine modesty with performance. And history, seemingly, is forgotten: Fatima al-Fihri founded the still operating University of Al-Qarawiyyin in Fes in 859 AD, part of the burgeoning Islamic Golden Age.
In June, the Trump administration released the first part of its “deal of the century” peace plan for Israel and the Palestinians that focused on economic development and investment. There was minimal excitement in the region with so many key political and territorial issues unaddressed; perhaps a new effort in 2020? The challenges continue to mount: Abbas has recently said that there will be no Palestinian Authority general elections unless Israel allows Palestinians in East Jerusalem to vote.
Netanyahu faces a tough re-election campaign through March 2nd, and then there’s the indictment that he’s facing on three corruption-related charges. He is Israel’s longest serving prime minister but for how much longer?
Mr. Saied carried 90% of the vote of 18- to 25-year-old Tunisians. A modest, shy retired college professor with no experience in national politics or bureaucratic governance, Saied will have to learn on the job with a fractured parliament and high expectations for progress on both the economic front and in continuing to bolster durable civil society institutions—a hallmark of post-2011 Tunisia. It’s always fun to be the outsider who pulls off an improbably upset victory. Now the hard work begins.