Middle East Briefs 2015–2020
Middle East Brief 139 (Summary) — China’s economic and diplomatic ties with each of the eight states that border the Persian Gulf rapidly expanded over the past two decades. This occurred despite conflicts and diplomatic tensions among those states and the heavy dependence most of them have on the United States for their external security. And China, so far, has largely avoided being drawn deeply into the complex politics of the region. In this Brief, Nader Habibi explores the reasons for this growth in China’s trade and investment with Iran, Iraq, and the monarchies of the Gulf Cooperation Council. He analyzes the motivations and strategic calculations of the Gulf states while emphasizing China’s ability to contribute to economic diversification programs and link infrastructure projects to its global Belt and Road Initiative. Habibi concludes by discussing factors that might limit further expansion of Gulf-China economic ties, including increasing U.S. concern about China’s growing influence in the region.
Middle East Brief 138 (Summary) — The Israeli government’s declaration in April of its intent to vote on a unilateral annexation of the Jordan Valley and all Israeli settlements in the West Bank—as outlined in the Trump peace plan—prompted Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas the following month to "absolve" the PA of all agreements and understandings with Israel and the U.S., thereby ending coordination in security, economic, and civil affairs. Although plans for annexation have now been "suspended" as a result of the Israeli-Emirati normalization deal announced in August, those links remain severed, and the threat of annexation remains unresolved. In this Brief, Khalil Shikaki analyzes the strategic game of chicken between Abbas and Israeli leaders and argues that each side is waiting for the other to concede as the PA weakens and moves toward gradual collapse. This standoff continues, despite the Israeli-Emirati agreement, because Palestinians believe that annexation is not "off the table." The Brief reveals how the suspension of relations has affected Palestinians and what the threat of annexation means for stability and the diplomatic process.
Middle East Brief 137 (Summary) — In 2018, the Trump administration withdrew from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) and began its "maximum pressure campaign" to compel Iran to renegotiate the nuclear deal. Almost two years later, sanctions on Iran continue, talks have not recommenced, and U.S.-Iranian relations remain at a stalemate. This has led to speculation that the campaign is regime change in disguise. In this Brief, Arash Davari unpacks the maximum pressure campaign's internal logic to identify the conditions under which it would induce the true power brokers in Iran to engage in negotiations. He concludes that the current U.S. policy appears to be a regime change one because the narrow set of preconditions under which negotiations would happen have not occurred. But this analysis also suggests that, under different circumstances, the maximum pressure campaign may yet lead to renewed talks between the U.S. and Iran.
Middle East Brief 136 (Summary) — From the Arab Spring uprisings to the anti-racist demonstrations spreading across the U.S. and the globe today, waves of mass protest are often seen as ephemeral moments of anger. They typically are judged to be a success or failure based on the extent to which they produce direct political change. In this Brief, Youssef El Chazli uses Egypt’s 2011 revolution to highlight the often-overlooked effects that participation in mass protests has on individuals' lives after they leave the streets. He argues that participating in mass public protests forced many Egyptians to examine their private lives and beliefs and question what was normal and what was possible in other spheres of life, including friendship circles, family, and the workplace. Although mass protests may subside, they shape participants on issues related to gender, parenting, and professional careers. These effects are easy to overlook yet can increase the propensity for long-term social, political, and cultural change.
Middle East Brief 135 (Summary) — Long criticized for human rights abuses, the Turkish National Police underwent significant reforms in the early 2000s as part of Turkey’s effort to join the European Union. International donors and experts encouraged Turkey to import best practices of community policing and proactive crime prevention from the West. These reforms, it was thought, would protect human rights, improve governance, and further the democratization of the country. In this Brief, Hayal Akarsu argues that this remodeling of the Turkish police had the paradoxical effect of strengthening state surveillance in Turkey. Importing proactive policing practices enabled the Turkish police to infiltrate into the everyday lives of ordinary people to an extent that it had never before done. Granting the police discretion to punish "potential criminality" in public spheres facilitated arbitrary policing, and police-led social projects focused on "social risks" brought the police into the private homes of citizens. Instead of democratizing policing in Turkey, these reforms actually provided the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) with a new toolkit to strengthen its hold on power.
Middle East Brief 134 (Summary) — Jordanian society is often described in terms of a native Transjordanian tribal population supporting the Hashemite monarchy against a larger population of Palestinians. In this Brief, Yazan Doughan argues that this constellation of identities was the product of a particular historical moment in the kingdom’s history—1967-1989—and that a new form of Jordanian patriotism has come to replace it in recent years. This new patriotism, expressed in the language of economic and human rights and commitment to the homeland, rather than allegiance to the person of the King, was a product both of the state’s liberalization of the economy and of the nationalization of politics since the 1980s. During Jordan’s “Arab Spring” of 2011-12, Doughan found that activists utilized this language as they sought to claim popular sovereignty against a king whom they accused of corruption, leading previously disparate groups—including so-called regime loyalists—to join the popular movement for reform, known as the Hirak. The Brief concludes by addressing what this change in civic patriotism says about the willingness of the current generation of Jordanian activists to call for revolution.
Middle East Brief 133 (Summary) — The peace treaty signed between Israel and Jordan twenty-five years ago, often referred to as the Wadi Araba Treaty, was meant to usher in an era of friendly relations and cooperation between the two countries, open the way for reconciliation between Israel and the wider Arab world, and place Jordan in a position to mediate a fair settlement between the Jewish state and the Palestinians. Today, little remains of those lofty promises and Israeli-Jordanian relations remain a "cold peace." In this Brief, Dror Zeevi explores the domestic, bilateral, and regional issues that contributed to this impasse. Zeevi highlights the unwillingness of the parties to follow through on cooperative projects meant to link Israel and Jordan economically, the role of violence in shaping public opinion toward cooperative endeavors, and how the rise of Iran has led the Israeli government to increasingly look toward Gulf Arab states instead of Jordan for regional partnerships. The Brief concludes by exploring how the treaty’s failure to deliver real peace dividends could impact future efforts by Israel to sign peace treaties with other Arab states.
Middle East Brief 132 (Summary) — Over the past 15 years and under the leadership of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Turkey dramatically expanded its diplomatic and economic relations with Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Despite this, Turkey supported Qatar in June 2017 when Saudi Arabia and the UAE led an economic blockade on their neighbor. Soon after, in October 2018, Turkish diplomatic relations with Saudi soured further after the assassination of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul. Many analysts expected that these diplomatic crises would have severe economic reverberations and harm the Turkish economy. In this Brief, Nader Habibi assesses the economic implications for Turkey by examining changes in four important areas with Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Qatar: bilateral trade, foreign investment, purchases of Turkish real estate, and tourism. He finds that, despite considerable diplomatic tensions, Turkish-Saudi economic links have proven to be resilient. In contrast, trade and investment relations between Turkey and the UAE have suffered, although increased Turkish exports to and investment from Qatar have partly offset those losses. The Brief discusses what these developments tell us about how policymakers in the region use their economic relations to reward or punish trade partners for diplomatic reasons.
Middle East Brief 131 (Summary) — Tunisian women have gained many new legal rights since the overthrow of President Ben Ali in January 2011, including the right to marry non-Muslims, mandated parity with men in elected bodies, and a comprehensive law against all forms of gender-based violence. This expansion of women's rights surprised many Tunisians who thought that the country's existing "pro-women" policies, often described as the most progressive in the Arab world, would be rolled back after the revolution, particularly as the Islamic party, Ennahda, was gaining political and electoral power. In this Brief, Hind Ahmed Zaki examines this unexpected development and argues that women's rights activists in Tunisia played a critical role after the revolution in both the protection of existing rights and in their further expansion. These activists creatively reframed and rehabilitated the previous regime's nationalist project of state feminism, using legacies from the authoritarian past to mobilize citizens and shape policy outcomes during the transition to democracy.
Middle East Brief 130 (Summary) — The Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) plays a prominent role in carrying out the Islamic Republic’s foreign policy agenda. Noting this, the Trump administration has targeted the IRGC as part of its maximum pressure policy on Iran, recently announcing that the U.S. will designate it as a Foreign Terrorist Organization. In this Brief, Maryam Alemzadeh describes the inherently informal nature of the IRGC and the notable degree of freedom that it possesses to embark on actions that go against centrally devised policies. She argues that this unconventional and flexible political structure was established in the very first days of the Islamic Republic, after the 1979 revolution, and reflects struggles between Islamists and technocrats over the nature of their new government. The IRGC’s organizational informality, flexible modus operandi, and ethos were consolidated during the armed conflicts of the following years. The Brief’s analysis has implications for the extent to which the Trump administration’s policies will be successful in restraining the IRGC’s regional activities.
Middle East Brief 129 (Summary) — Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s announcement in February 2019 that he would run for a fifth term triggered the rise of a mass protest movement known as the Hirak. The Hirak brought together diverse and fractious political currents in peaceful demonstrations that, less than seven weeks later, led to Bouteflika’s ouster after 20 years in office. Yet protests continued, demanding deeper changes to the political system and hindering the military’s attempt to engineer a rapid transition. In this Brief, Thomas Serres links the durability of Algeria’s revolutionary movement to its ability to connect the current situation to the war of independence against the French over half a century ago. The Hirak relied heavily on shared nationalist discourses that referenced that earlier struggle, portraying the regime as a form of internal colonialism that had confiscated the country’s independence and public wealth. To understand the resiliency, strength, and future limits of Algeria’s current revolutionary movement, Serres argues that we need to understand how Algerians collectively have revived the populist legacy of the first Algerian revolution.
Middle East Brief 128 (Summary) — After the Syrian uprising began in 2011, many U.S. government officials and foreign policy analysts predicted that the regime of Bashar al-Asad would eventually collapse. They saw Syria’s minority-led government as inherently fragile and pointed to the country’s long history of political instability. Eight years later, however, the Asad regime survives, albeit transformed, and has regained territorial control of much of the country. In this Brief, Daniel Neep argues that these analyses misunderstood the nature of the regime that Bashar and his father, Hafiz, had built since 1970. The Asads learned valuable lessons from earlier Syrian dictators who were overthrown and, by seeking to avoid their mistakes, they constructed a regime that was more networked, more dispersed, and more sprawling than experts and policymakers realized. To understand the continued resiliency of the Syrian regime, Neep argues we need to look, as the Asads did, at the country’s overlooked history of tyrannies.
Middle East Brief 127 (Summary) — Launched in April 2016 and closely associated with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, Saudi Vision 2030 is an ambitious set of economic and social initiatives aimed primarily at transforming the economy of Saudi Arabia. The conventional wisdom among journalists and analysts is that a series of crises and policies — including massive Saudi intervention in the war in Yemen and the assassination of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi — have hurt Vision 2030 by damaging the Kingdom’s reputation as a stable and hospitable environment for long-term investment. In this Brief, Nader Habibi evaluates progress in the implementation of Saudi Vision 2030 programs. He finds that while there have been successes in public sector reforms and enacting social and cultural changes, many of the economic diversification efforts have stalled because of a lack of foreign investment and partnerships. Habibi argues that paradoxically some of these delays — particularly to the “giga projects” — might be a blessing in disguise for the long-term trajectory of Vision 2030.
Middle East Brief 126 (Summary) — The Trump administration plans to unveil its detailed proposal for peace between Israel and the Palestinians sometime after the April 9th Israeli elections. Will the so-called “ultimate deal” be dead on arrival or could it lead the two sides to re-engage in serious negotiations based upon the plan's details and conditions for implementation? In this Brief, Shai Feldman and Khalil Shikaki identify factors critical to the success of Trump’s initiative. They examine the Israelis' and Palestinians’ minimal requirements in such a deal; whether key Arab leaders would be willing to support the U.S. effort; the leverage the Trump administration could bring to bear on each side; and the degree to which Israeli and Palestinian domestic political environments would be receptive to renewed peace efforts. Finally, the authors discuss measures that the Trump administration could take to decrease the odds of either or both parties rejecting what Trump has called “the deal of the century.”
Middle East Brief 125 (Summary) — Islamic movements in Saudi Arabia — including the Muslim Brotherhood, Salafi groups, and armed militants — have faced fierce repression since the rise to power of King Salman in 2015. As with earlier crackdowns, however, they are likely to survive. In this Brief, Pascal Menoret argues that the strength and resiliency of Saudi Islamic activism is rooted in how it takes advantage of resources and spaces created during the rapid expansion of suburbs of Saudi Arabia’s main cities since the 1960s. Islamic activism in the Kingdom is a suburban phenomenon, and it is in the sprawling landscapes of suburbia where Islamic activists recruit and mobilize for a range of activities, including street protests, marches, electioneering, and direct action. Menoret’s analysis challenges the conventional wisdom that piety and religious doctrine explain the strength of Islamic activism in Saudi Arabia.
December 2018 – The Return of Geo-Economics and the Emergence of Co-Prosperity Zones in the Middle East
Middle East Brief 124 (Summary) - In the Middle East, the nation-state is back. After a period of relative decline caused by the “Arab Spring,” states in the region have strengthened relative to non-state actors. Consequently, geo-politics — and, specifically, geo-economics — have returned as the basis for inter-state interactions. In this Brief, Abdel Monem Said Aly examines two nascent zones of economic cooperation and possible mutual prosperity. On the islands and coasts of the Red Sea, Egyptian development plans and Saudi Arabia’s ambitious “Vision 2030” complement and reinforce one another. In the Eastern Mediterranean, ongoing gas discoveries and progress in maritime border demarcation agreements between Egypt and Cyprus could usher in a period of stability and prosperity that extends to Israel and other Mediterranean countries. Said Aly analyzes the opportunities presented by these two zones, as well as important challenges to the realization of their potential.
November 2018 – Fragmentation and Localization in Yemen’s War: Challenges and Opportunities for Peace
Middle East Brief 122 (Summary) — Four months after Iraq held parliamentary elections in May 2018 and two months since protests against inadequate public services, high unemployment, and corruption erupted in Basra and spread to other locales, Iraqi political factions continue to negotiate power-sharing and the formation of a new government. In this Brief, David Siddhartha Patel explores structural factors shaping the message of the elections and protests. He argues that both Iraq’s post-Ba‘th political system and a majority of its people came of age during a decade of extraordinarily high oil prices, from 2005 to 2014, and this period of plenty left a legacy that shapes attitudes as well as possibilities for reform. This period was critical with respect to the nature of patronage networks as well as in shaping the expectations of the country’s burgeoning youth population, 39% of whom were born after the U.S.-led invasion in 2003. A majority of Iraq’s population do not remember life under Saddam Hussein — only the period under elected Iraqi governments flush with oil wealth. These factors likely will hinder the next Iraqi government’s efforts to implement financial and administrative reforms.
Middle East Brief 121 (Summary) — The Jazira — the lands at the foot of the Anatolian Plateau between the Tigris and the Euphrates — was at the center of the territory held by ISIS. Discussion on the future of this region now focuses on efforts to promote economic development, facilitate the return of refugees, and include ethnic and religious minorities in rebuilding efforts. In this Brief, Samuel Dolbee offers a historical perspective on similar endeavors in the Jazira, arguing that two kinds of engineering — agricultural and ethnic — have a long history of being commingled there in ways that made the region ripe for unrest. Ethnicity and agriculture have intersected as various states mobilized minorities as well as majorities to populate and develop this land, transforming it from a realm of limited state control and limited cultivation to some of the most productive — albeit still marginal — regions of Iraq, Syria, and Turkey. These state projects entangled ethnic identity with agrarian development schemes and border-making, suggesting that the solution to instability in the Jazira is not simply a matter of getting borders “right.” Thinking about what may happen in this land after ISIS requires accounting for the various borders that have emerged in concert with one another, including those of states, environments, and ethnicities.
Middle East Brief 120 (Summary) — In late June 2018, demonstrations and strikes spread throughout Iran. This unrest followed a widespread wave of protests that began in the final days of 2017 and continued into January. Both sets of protests started over economic issues, but soon turned to political and social concerns. Despite their dramatic spread, however, these recent protests have been suppressed quickly by the Iranian government’s police forces, known as NAJA, and largely without the help of Iran’s paramilitary militia (the Basij) or the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC). In this Brief, Saeid Golkar argues that NAJA and its special forces have evolved over the past decade specifically to prepare for such contingencies, and its recent success in controlling and suppressing protests is the result of a continuous process of restructuring, expansion, and professionalization of police forces in post-revolutionary Iran. While most academics and policy makers focus on the Basij and the IRGC when discussing the Islamic Republic’s coercive apparatus, this Brief describes how NAJA and its special forces have become ever more important in maintaining domestic public order, blocking reform, and ensuring the survival of the Iranian regime.
Middle East Brief 119 (Summary) — After the 2001 U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan, Iran, which lies on drug trafficking routes from Afghanistan to Europe, experienced a dramatic increase in the number of drug users. Over the years, the Islamic Republic's response to the crisis has moved away from draconian measures, including capital punishment. Most recently, the country amended strict drug trafficking laws, paving the way for several thousand prisoners to have their pending death sentences reviewed and possibly commuted. In this Brief, Golnar Nikpour examines this change in sentencing laws as part of a broader societal and governmental rethinking of Iran’s approach to the growing epidemic of drug use in the country. Influenced by domestic public health NGOs and grassroots organizations, Iran’s official anti-drug policies and strategies have shifted from a zero tolerance ethos on drug use to incorporate harm reduction and addiction treatment models favored by medical professionals. More broadly, this demonstrates the extent to which the Islamic Republic’s legal and penal codes remain flexible and responsive to both international and domestic pressures, rather than static and simply driven by ideology.
Middle East Brief 118 (Summary) — After terrorist attacks in 2003, Morocco launched an ambitious and wide-ranging strategy to counter violent extremism. Intended to both target existing terror groups and address the roots of radicalization, this comprehensive strategy sought to combine security measures with efforts to improve socioeconomic conditions and promote the state’s moderate interpretation of Islam. In this Brief, Mohammed Masbah assesses this strategy and finds that, while it has been largely successful at hindering jihadi groups from operating inside Morocco over the past 15 years, it failed to prevent hundreds of Moroccans from radicalizing and joining groups fighting abroad. Masbah argues that the domination of security agencies in implementing the strategy sidelined its non-security aspects, which also suffered from being too broad, unfocused, and lacking in complementarity. As a result, Morocco seems to have failed to make sufficient progress in achieving its broader objective of fighting poverty and social exclusion. The Brief concludes by discussing the implications of the assessment for the expected return of hundreds of Moroccans who fought in Syria and Iraq with ISIS.
Middle East Brief 117 (Summary) — Lebanon’s political system is often described as weak and perennially at risk of collapse. The sudden resignation of Prime Minister Saad Hariri in late 2017 was just one example of how regional crises threaten to destabilize Lebanon’s government. In this Brief, Jeffrey G. Karam challenges this conventional wisdom and argues that the activism and organizational capacity of the Lebanese public make the country's political system more stable and resilient than is commonly assumed. This occurs in two ways. First, civil society and non-governmental organizations support, pressure, and challenge the Lebanese government in its normal functioning in a wide-variety of arenas, such as electoral reform and environmental planning. Second, during crises, NGOs can help by supplementing or substituting for the Lebanese state, such as responding to the breakdown of garbage collection and coping with the influx of Syrian refugees. This bottom-up activism contributes to the stability and durability of the Lebanese political system but also, inadvertently, allows the government to remain weak.
Middle East Brief 116 (Summary) — No formal refugee camps exist in Lebanon to house the approximately 1-2 million Syrian refugees in the country. Laws there make it difficult for them to maintain legal status, limiting access to formal employment, the justice system, and public services. In this Brief, Nils Hägerdal argues that the plight of Syrian refugees in Lebanon is a result of a series of policy changes implemented by the Lebanese government since 2014 that are designed to reduce the number of Syrians in the country. Many Lebanese view the refugees’ ongoing presence as a threat to their country’s economy, political balance, and security. Consequently, the Lebanese government, unlike those in Jordan and Turkey, has implemented policies on refugees primarily designed to ensure that Syrians do not settle permanently in the country but instead return to Syria as soon as possible.
Middle East Brief 115 (Summary) — January 16, 2018 marked two years since the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action — the nuclear deal between Iran and the P5+1 — lifted international nuclear-related sanctions. Although the agreement was expected to bring significant economic benefits to Iran, the weeks leading up to this anniversary witnessed Iranians protesting in the streets of many cities against continued economic hardship. In this Brief, Nader Habibi assesses the economic dividends of the nuclear deal for the Iranian economy by focusing on oil production, growth, trade, and investment over the past two years. He then looks at factors such as household consumption, unemployment, corruption, and the financial burdens of Iran's foreign interventions to explain why so many Iranians have not felt the economic benefits of sanctions relief in their daily lives.
Middle East Brief 114 (Summary) — The recent storm created by President Donald Trump’s declaration that the U.S. recognizes Jerusalem as Israel’s capital drew attention away from an important interview that the president’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, gave at the Saban Forum a few days earlier. There, for the first time, Kushner explained the premises and the underlying logic of the Trump administration’s preparations to launch negotiations leading to an “ultimate deal” for resolving the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. In this Brief, Shai Feldman and Khalil Shikaki address the following questions: How favorable are the current regional, as well as Palestinian and Israeli domestic political conditions for launching such an initiative, and to what extent did the Jerusalem statement affect these conditions? And if the president intends to eventually unveil his “ultimate deal,” why did he risk derailing the efforts of his own team by making the Jerusalem statement in advance of, and separate from, the peace initiative to which Kushner alluded? The Brief concludes by providing a net assessment of the viability of the Trump administration’s initiative to resolve the decades-long conflict.
Middle East Brief 113 (Summary) — Competing Muslim Brotherhoods, one legal and one illegal, now exist in Jordan. To coerce Islamists to participate and not boycott parliamentary elections, the Jordanian government effectively de-licensed the original organization and supported a group of Brotherhood dissidents who registered a rival “Society of Muslim Brothers.” In this Brief, David Siddhartha Patel argues that this strategy has had the unintended consequence of institutionalizing a pre-existing communal rift among Islamists. The new and licensed Muslim Brotherhood is overwhelmingly Transjordanian, while the original and now illegal organization is increasingly composed of only Palestinian-Jordanians. This communal divide, which is often misunderstood as reflecting primarily an ideological rift, will have serious, long-term implications for Jordanian society and politics if it leads to the conflation of anti-Muslim Brotherhood and anti-Palestinian sentiments in the Kingdom.
Middle East Brief 112 (Summary) — Following the 2010 Jasmine Revolution, Tunisians voted the Islamist party, Ennahda, into power in 2011. At the time, many were concerned that Ennahda would use its newfound electoral victory to reverse significant gains for Tunisian women's rights over the past decades. These gains included the right to work, hold political office, initiate divorce, and pass citizenship onto their children. In this Brief, Carla Abdo-Katsipis argues that the Tunisian case demonstrates that the coming to power of an Islamist party does not necessarily come at a cost to gender equality and women’s rights. The Brief describes the status of women in Tunisia before and after the Jasmine Revolution and then presents three aspects of Ennahda's governance and policies that affect women's rights.
Middle East Brief 111 (Summary) — In 2013, the Turkish government and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) entered into historic peace talks that signaled the possibility of an end to the Kurdish question in the Turkish republic. However, by July 2015, the Turkish government, led by President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP), launched an unprecedented military offensive against the PKK. These military operations have claimed the lives of two thousand people and displaced half a million others. In this Brief, Serra Hakyemez argues that the failed peace process between the Kurds and the Turkish government is due to the discrepancy between the popular support for peace and the absence of legal support, which allowed the strained negotiations between the AKP and PKK to fall apart when the political circumstances changed. The Brief concludes with some reflections on the possibilities of restarting negotiations between the AKP and PKK in the aftermath of Turkey’s 2017 constitutional referendum.
Middle East Brief 110 (Summary) — Six years after a popular uprising against a ruthless dictator, Libyans struggle to understand why stability and prosperity did not come to their resource-rich country. Libya's sovereign power is currently contested among two parliaments, three governments, and nine members of a presidential council. This abundance of political bodies is far from affording peace, stability, and prosperity. In this Brief, Jean-Louis Romanet Perroux identifies the key actors who play roles in the international, national, and individual dimensions of Libyan politics and explains the factors that prevent the creation of a single and strong Libyan national government. Finally, the Brief also explores whether there is a realistic scenario for either military rule or a national unity government in the near future for Libya, given the distribution of power among an extensive and diverse number of actors and the seeming impossibility that some of them will coalesce into a dominant coalition.
May 2017 – What Does the 2017 Presidential Election Tell Us about the State of the Islamic Republic of Iran?
Middle East Brief 109 (Summary) — On May 19, 2017, Iranians go to the polls to elect their next president from six candidates, including the incumbent Hasan Rouhani. The election has become surprisingly competitive for a variety of reasons, including the unclear economic benefits of the nuclear deal signed between Iran and the P5+1 in July 2015. In this Brief, Seyedamir Hossein Mahdavi and Naghmeh Sohrabi analyze three other issues that have come to the fore in the space for public debate opened by this election: the effects of Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani’s death in January 2017 on the reformist-centrist alliance; the question of, and the planning around, the eventual successor to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei; and finally, the unemployment crisis in Iran and the associated mobilization of the populist vote. The Brief concludes with an examination of the expected evolution of these issues in the aftermath of the election, regardless of who is elected president.
Middle East Brief 108 (Summary) — In the wake of the political protests that erupted in Morocco in 2011, King Mohammed VI issued royal pardons in March 2011 and February 2012 to a group of prominent Salafi ex-Jihadis, that is — Salafi Jihadis who had renounced violence. He offered to release them from prison on the condition that they either remain apolitical or participate in the legal political process. The offer was part of the monarchy’s broader effort to battle and defeat extremism. This significant policy shift — allowing Salafis to take part in mainstream politics — has been attributed by seasoned observers to the regime’s inclusiveness, and it allowed Salafi ex-Jihadis to enjoy the benefits associated with becoming legal political actors. In this Brief, Mohammed Masbah argues that the political participation of prominent Salafi ex-Jihadi sheikhs within the regime’s predefined framework seems to have been counterproductive. Rather than leading to the moderation of Salafi former detainees, it has instead alienated their ideological base, thereby shrinking the scope of these sheikhs’ influence on their followers and preventing the government from controlling the actions of radicals and stemming the flow of Moroccan youth to conflicts abroad.
Middle East Brief 107 (Summary) — In October 2016, after two and a half years of failed attempts to fill the post of the President of Lebanon, Saad Hariri, the Sunni former Premier, nominated Michel Aoun, the Christian Maronite former commander in chief of the Lebanese Armed Forces and ally of Shii Hezbollah. Hariri’s initiative both ended the Lebanese presidential crisis and began to mend the political rift between Aoun’s mostly Christian Free Patriotic Movement and Hariri’s predominantly Sunni Future Movement. This development is not consistent, however, with the common perception of Lebanon as dominated by sectarianism, which is seen as the root cause of the country’s wars, underdevelopment, and chronic instability. In this Brief, Jeffrey Karam offers an alternative to that conventional understanding of Lebanese politics. He argues that cross-sectarian compromises between political elites, such as this one that solved the presidential crisis, have recurred throughout the history of modern Lebanon, providing a surprising degree of stability to the Lebanese political system. Nonetheless, such deals primarily serve the interests of elites and hinder reforms that could fix the country’s myriad problems. The Brief concludes with an assessment of grassroots organizations that are attempting to break across these cross-sectarian alliances in order to bring about fundamental change in Lebanon.
Middle East Brief 106 (Summary) — On November 3, 2016, the government of Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi accelerated the implementation of a set of economic decisions that previous governments had feared to undertake. The reforms — an austerity program including subsidy cuts; currency reform; and increased indirect taxes — have been gradually adopted in the lead-up to an agreement for a major loan from the International Monetary Fund (IMF). Egypt’s decision to float its currency immediately caused the value of the Egyptian pound to crash almost 50 percent against the U.S. dollar. Along with earlier subsidy cuts, these reforms have created a set of inflationary pressures. These painful measures have accordingly frustrated many Egyptians, even as many observers see them as necessary to restore economic stability. In this Brief, Ahmad Shokr explores how Sisi’s chosen economic course might affect his government’s political legitimacy in the coming years. He argues that under current economic conditions, the government will find it difficult to use economic policy as a means of building a durable social coalition that can strengthen its political authority.
Middle East Brief 105 (Summary) — In the aftermath of the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani emerged as one of the most influential voices in Iraq. His dual role as a leading Shii figure in the Muslim world and a vocal and consistent voice for democracy and stability in Iraq has, at times, placed him at odds with Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, as well as with radical forces inside Iraq. In this Brief, Harith Hasan al-Qarawee analyzes Sistani’s approach to authority in Iraq, his attitudes towards the Iranian role in Iraq, and the future of Najaf’s hawza, one of the major centers of religious learning in the Shii world, in the aftermath of the aging Sistani’s death. The Brief concludes that a post-Sistani Najaf will be more divided, weaker, and vulnerable to influence exerted by Iran.
Middle East Brief 104 (Summary) — The “two-state paradigm” that for decades comprised the basis of almost all discussions about resolving the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, is losing its relevance. What will replace it is a “one-state reality” — the de-facto transformation of the area between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River into one political unit. This Brief analyzes the trajectories in the conflict’s global and regional environments as well as in the Israeli and Palestinian domestic scenes that currently drive the slide toward this new reality. It also elaborates the considerable costs that are likely to be associated with this slide for Israelis and Palestinians.
Middle East Brief 103 (Summary) — ISIS’s territorial ambitions and the ongoing conflicts in Iraq and Syria have led to speculation among various analysts as to whether we are witnessing the end of Sykes-Picot and the emergence of newer and “less artificial” borders in the Middle East. In this Brief, David Patel identifies three myths underlying these assessments and systematically dismantles them: first, the notion that the Sykes-Picot Agreement is the moment when Europeans drew artificial states and borders on a blank map of the Middle East; second, that ISIS’s expansion and control of territory in both Iraq and Syria is an unprecedented challenge to this regional state system; and third, that a collapse of colonial-era states would result in smaller and more peaceful polities defined by relatively homogenous ethnic or sectarian identity groups. The Brief ultimately challenges the current narrative in the West of ethnic partition as a solution to the crises in the Middle East.
September 2016 – Why Are Egyptian Youth Burning Their University Diplomas? The Overeducation Crisis in Egypt
Middle East Brief 102 (Summary) — On September 11, 2015, Egyptian university graduates set their PhD and MBA certificates on fire to protest their inability to find suitable jobs with these advanced degrees. Paradoxically, the day before Egyptian high school students and their parents gathered to demand an increase in the admissions capacity of public universities. These very different protests are emblematic of the “overeducation” crisis facing Egypt. In this Brief, Nader Habibi and Fatma El-Hamidi analyze the political and socioeconomic causes, historical roots, and current form of this crisis. They further shed light on the ongoing debate, recent policy initiatives, and place the Egyptian crisis within a larger regional context. The Brief concludes with the assessment that only by restricting admissions can Egypt re-balance the supply and demand for highly educated workers.
Middle East Brief 101 (Summary) — For decades, the Saudi monarchy has propagated the notion that they are the only rampart against Islamism inside the country. This idea has become axiomatic internationally, and many analyses of Saudi Arabia have solely focused on the salience of the royal family. In this Brief, Pascal Menoret challenges conventional understandings of Saudi politics and reveals a very different picture. The Brief examines six movements that have attempted to organize and protest in Saudi Arabia: the Sunni Islamist movement, the Association for Political and Civil Rights, the Shiite Islamist movement, the anti-corruption movement, the anti-repression movement, and the labor movement. Although these movements lack institutional resources, they mobilize people to challenge state policies. Menoret explains why some mobilizations were successful while others failed, and assesses the contribution of these movements to the future of Saudi politics. The Brief concludes by stating that, in the absence of political reform and with the decline in state spending, repression will remain a staple of the Saudi political system, making the future of Saudi politics bleaker than ever.
Middle East Brief 100 (Summary) — The Iraqi Prime Minister, Haider al-Abadi’s rise to power in 2014, in the aftermath of Nouri al-Maliki’s controversial rule, was lauded by the United States, Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, Moqtada al-Sadr, and most Kurdish and Sunni parties alike. Yet, recent protests in Iraq raise questions about Abadi’s ability to implement reforms and remain in power in the face of growing discontent. In this Brief, Harith Hasan Al-Qarawee reviews Abadi’s premiership thus far, examines the differences between Abadi’s and Maliki’s policies, and questions whether the transference of power from Maliki to Abadi has led to a significant change in Iraq’s political dynamics. The Brief argues that, despite improvements in the style of governance, Abadi failed to meaningfully impact major political issues, especially those pertaining to the central authorities’ relations with the Kurds and the Sunnis, and the conduct of the war against ISIS. The Brief concludes by illustrating that the nature of Iraq’s political system and Abadi’s inability to consolidate a support base have made his term ineffectual and may, ultimately, be the cause of his downfall.
Middle East Brief 99 (Summary) — Since 2014 when ISIS declared itself a new Islamic caliphate, the questions of what is Islamic authority and who wields it today have taken on a new urgency. In this Brief, Dr. Richard Nielsen explains the changing nature of Islamic authority in the Sunni Muslim Middle East. The Brief demonstrates that there is a distinction between those nominally in authority and those who actually have broad influence, and describes how traditional Muslim authorities have lost ground to new, more ideologically diverse clerical voices. The Brief also argues that the decline in the influence of state-employed clerics means that governments that have previously relied on religious authority now risk actually undermining it when they seek religious cover for their political projects. Taken together, the evidence presented here shows that religious authority in the Middle East is not as absolute as it often appears to outside observers. Even the most influential clerics face substantial limitations on their ability to change worldwide Islamic discourse around contested issues like the correct definition of “jihad.”
Middle East Brief 98 (Summary) — The Egyptian parliamentary elections held in fall 2015 were meant to complete President el-Sisi’s political road map and restore stability and social order to the country. However, critics both in Egypt and the international community have questioned the elections’ legitimacy. The contention surrounding the elections was exacerbated by the low turnout and corruption that plagued the process. In this Brief, Abdel Monem Said Aly and Sobhy Essaila address this controversy but also provide a broader perspective on these elections by focusing on the novel features of their results: the absence of a presidential party, the proliferation of parties, a surge in women’s participation, greater representation of Copts, a higher number of university-educated MPs, and the absence of violence. The authors then examine how the recent parliamentary elections may enable the reestablishment of stability in Egypt.
Middle East Brief 97 (Summary) — A decade of no war, no peace in Palestinian-Israeli relations is now coming to an end, and is gradually being replaced by intensifying violence. In this Brief, Khalil Shikaki argues that the post-intifada status quo that prevailed in the West Bank during the 2005–15 period is currently being challenged by two escalating factors: 1) The Palestinian Authority (PA), which contributed significantly to the status quo's creation, is rebelling against it, with PA president Mahmoud Abbas threatening to dismantle the Oslo Accords, and 2) The Palestinian public, which facilitated that status quo, is now taking matters into its own hands and is on the verge of plunging the West Bank into violence. Abbas, without whom the post-intifada design would have been unthinkable, may or may not survive the turmoil, but it is almost certain that the “Abbas Decade” that he shaped will not. Shikaki analyzes the five pillars upon which the decade of no war, no peace was constructed, and explains the international, regional, and domestic causes for the breakdown of Palestinian-Israeli relations. He concludes by examining three possible outcomes of the current escalation, and their implications for the future of the two-state solution.
Middle East Brief 96 (Summary) — Since the signing of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action between Iran and the P5+1 in 2015, several contradictory messages have been coming out of Tehran. On one hand, the Rouhani government and many among the Iranian people hope that sanctions relief will alleviate the Islamic Republic’s many economic ills. On the other, Iranian hardliners and the Supreme Leader himself have warned against “Western infiltration” as a result of a potential economic opening. In this Brief, Seyedamir Hossein Mahdavi steps back from the headlines to assess the validity of the various expectations regarding the impact of the Vienna Agreement on Iran by examining some of the most trenchant obstacles the Rouhani government faces today. Specifically, he identifies three inter-related economic and political crises that arose independently of the sanctions and thus cannot be resolved merely through the lifting of sanctions and the unfreezing of Iran’s assets abroad: the legacy of former president Mahmood Ahmadinejad’s economic mismanagement, the unprecedented number of job seekers entering Iran’s economy, and the expanded role of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) in the Iranian political arena. The Brief concludes by examining three probable scenarios concerning the effects of the agreement on the future of Iran in the short and medium terms, including the agreement’s possible impact on the February 2016 parliamentary and Assembly of Experts elections.
Middle East Brief 95 (Summary) — Engulfed in violent conflict and political turmoil, today’s Middle East is unrecognizable. The costs of the past four years of violence in Syria alone, when the dead, wounded, and displaced, as well as the destruction of Syria’s infrastructure and economy are taken into account, are among the worst in the region's history. In this Brief, Abdel Monem Said Aly and Shai Feldman ask: Can the Middle East be put back together? They address the following questions: What are the dimensions of the region’s current situation? How did the Middle East come to such a dreadful state of affairs? Can the region be restored? What are the obstacles facing any such effort, what resources are available to counter them, and what reforms would need to be implemented for any restoration of the region’s states to succeed? The authors suggest that the key to the region’s success lies in the creation of a Concert of Arabia — a Middle East corollary to the 19th century Concert of Europe — the core of which would be the Arab monarchies and Egypt. They also discuss the conditions under which Arab states might accept Israel as an affiliate of the Concert.
Middle East Brief 94 (Summary) — On June 7, 2015 the ruling Justice and Development Party in Turkey (AKP) failed to secure an electoral majority in the national-level parliamentary elections for the first time since it came to power in 2002. Although the AKP’s electoral defeat was caused by many converging developments, including the rise of pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party, an overlooked yet important factor was the split with the Gülen, a religious movement long-considered the main grassroots mobilizer of the AKP. The alliance with the Gülen had been crucial in securing the AKP's electoral victories in the 2002, 2007, and 2011 elections, so its absence was keenly felt during the 2015 elections. In this Brief, Sarah El-Kazaz analyzes the demise of the AKP-Gülen alliance by focusing on three key areas of contention: market-driven economics, EU accession, and Kurdish non-recognition. The Brief concludes with a discussion of the ramifications of the AKP-Gülen rift and its impact on the composition of a new ruling AKP coalition government.
Middle East Brief 93 (Summary) — By most accounts, the Libyan democratic transition, which began with the 2011 revolution and ended Muammar Gaddafi’s 42-year reign, appears to have been derailed. Libya is suffering a civil war and a Libyan state capable of steering the country towards democracy is unlikely to emerge any time soon. Yet in the midst of the country’s chaos, a positive change is occurring slowly and quietly. Largely overlooked, a vibrant civil society is forming, driven by shifts in individual and small-group attitudes and behaviors. In this Brief, Jean-Louis Romanet Perroux provides an assessment of Libyan civil society and its potential role in state-building based on a survey of 1,022 civil society organizations in six major cities. He first identifies three critical elements preventing a democratic transition: the failure of politics, the lack of state institutions, and communalism. Romanet Perroux then argues that the nascent civil society is helping to address these deficiencies by fostering empowerment and civic engagement, national identity, and trust and social cohesion. The Brief concludes that while civil society alone cannot end the cycle of violence or build state institutions, it is forging a sense of Libyan citizenship that is crucial for nation-building.
Middle East Brief 92 (Summary) — The rise and expansion of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has threatened to erode state order and boundaries in the Middle East. Situated at the epicenter of this potential regional breakdown, Jordan faces serious domestic and international challenges to the stability that its Hashemite monarchy has so carefully cultivated. In this Brief, Asher Susser provides a net assessment of Jordan’s response to the ISIS challenge and the regime’s capacity to weather this latest storm. In responding to this predicament, Jordan must confront the radicalization of its domestic Islamist opposition, a struggling economy overburdened by the massive influx of Syrian refugees, and discontent among the monarchy’s core of “East Banker” elite. Jordan’s ability to pull through hinges on two critical factors: international support and the evolution of Jordanian stateness, defined here as effective central government and a cohesive understanding of Jordanianness. Susser concludes that as long as these remain, the Jordanian monarchy can continue performing an increasingly precarious balancing act. Yet, he cautions that this will require delicate diplomacy and very generous support from the Hashemite Kingdom’s allies, including Israel.
Middle East Brief 91 (Summary) — IntroduIn his inaugural address as the first directly elected president of Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdogan declared his election a triumph of the “New Turkey.” This “New Turkey,” he proclaimed, is to be an inversion of the centralist and authoritarian legacy of the Kemalist past and the rise of pluralistic democracy. But how successful have Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) been in fulfilling this promise? In this Brief, Hikmet Kocamaner examines the parallels between the previous Kemalist regime and the current AKP rule by focusing on three shared characteristics: 1) centralization of power through one party rule; 2) the role of a charismatic leader with authoritarian tendencies and 3) the delegitimization of dissent. Kocamaner argues that while the AKP initially garnered widespread support because of its reconciliation with secular-liberal principles and promise to end the authoritarian Kemalist legacy, it has fallen short of achieving democratization and instead deepened its political entrenchment. The Brief concludes by positing that while current AKP policies will not bring the country closer to the promise of a “New Turkey,” the institutionalization of a participatory and pluralistic democracy may eventually move it in that directionction.
Middle East Brief 90 (Summary) — The September 2014 takeover of the Yemeni capital Sana’a by Houthi tribesmen, and subsequent events, have radically destabilized the fragile republic and holds the possibility of re-igniting a full civil war. Much of the analysis of current events in Yemen have focused on the rise of extremist religious groups, the possibility of a sectarian war, and the role of foreign powers in intensifying this conflict. In this Brief, Asher Orkaby takes an alternative view by examining the rise and success of the Houthi movement as a domestic conflict rooted in the crisis of legitimacy created by the passing of the 1960s revolutionary generation known as the Famous Forty. The ensuing power vacuum, he argues, has presented an opening for the Houthi movement to gain support for a religious and tribal alternative to the republican state model of the 1960s. The Brief concludes by suggesting that, with their situation growing increasingly desperate, Yemenis may accept the political certainty offered by the Houthi leadership, in a religiously-inspired language historically familiar to them.
Middle East Brief 89 (Summary) — The Islamic Republic of Iran is facing an unprecedented overeducation crisis—producing far more university graduates than the employment opportunities available to them. Indeed, while a number of Middle East countries have been experiencing the same challenge, the magnitude of this problem in Iran is far greater than in any of the region’s other states. In this Brief, Nader Habibi sheds light on the causes, magnitude, and consequences of this growing and little-examined challenge to Iran. He lays out both the Iranian government’s counterproductive policies that led to this crisis and the pitfalls associated with the proposed solutions. He concludes by arguing that while the primary symptom of the crisis is economic — the effects of the growing rates of underemployment among young college-educated Iranians on the country’s economy — its more important impact may be socio-political: If unmanaged, the growing discontent among educated young Iranians can lead to social instability and political unrest.
Middle East Brief 88 (Summary) — The events known as the Arab Spring and uprisings have provided two different models of possible integration of Islamic movements into politics: the example of al-Nahda in Tunisia, where participation in politics led to moderation, and that of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, where it did not. But what about the Brotherhood’s sister Palestinian movement, Hamas? Did the latter’s participation in Palestinian politics lead to its moderation? In this Brief, Khalil Shikaki addresses this question using seven years of survey research and other data collected by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research. Based on this data an effort is made to ascertain whether or not Hamas has changed its views with regard to three crucial issue-areas: governance, the social agenda, and the Arab-Israeli peace process. This Brief concludes that despite important examples of opinion change, Hamas has essentially failed to moderate its views.
Middle East Brief 87 (Summary) — The rise and expansion of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, poses a serious threat to regional and global security. In response, on September 10, 2014, President Obama initiated a strategy to “degrade and destroy” ISIS through systematic airstrikes and local “partner forces” fighting on the ground. This strategy is based on three key assumptions: first, that ISIS is foreign to Iraq; second, that ISIS will eventually alienate Sunni Arabs; and finally, that Iraq’s new government is more inclusive and can thus persuade Sunni Iraqis to break with ISIS and join hands with the government in Baghdad. In this Brief, David Siddhartha Patel explores the origins of each assumption and the reasons why they are not applicable in the present Iraqi political environment. Patel concludes by arguing that the inapplicability of these assumptions means that America’s military re-engagement in Iraq — this time against ISIS — will be long and difficult.