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MIDDLE EAST: The Gotterdammerung

January 01, 2013

ONE despot fell, an ex-dictator was convicted and a reigning president was fighting to maintain his 40-year-old dynastic rule as the year drew to a close over the Middle East. The one to fall was Ali Abdullah Saleh, who ruled Yemen for over three decades before a popular revolt made him bow to the inevitable. On return to Yemen from Saudi Arabia, where he had gone to recover from the wounds suffered in a rebel attack on his palace, Saleh handed over power to his deputy, Abd Rabbu Mansur Hadi, on Feb 27 before flying off to America. He was granted amnesty in returning for calling it quits.

The one to be convicted was Egypt’s Muhammad Hosni El Sayed Mubarak. Ailing and brought to court in a cage for trial on charges ranging from corruption and abuse of powers to murder, Anwar Sadat’s successor, who ruled as Egypt’s strongman for 30 years, was sentenced on June 2 to life imprisonment in a verdict derided as much by his supporters as by his sworn enemies, who thought the sentence was a slap on the wrist. This prompted Egypt’s newly elected president, Mohammad Morsi, to order his retrial.

Morsi made history when he was sworn in on June 30 as Egypt’s first truly elected head of state, but not before Mubarak remnants and the military had made every attempt to sabotage democracy and nullify the people’s verdict. On June 14, the day Egypt was having the second round of its presidential election, the Supreme Command of the Armed Forces (Scaf) dissolved an elected assembly on a court order, and through a decree assumed sweeping powers, arrogating to itself the right to legislate and budget-making and denied Morsi the title of the Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces.

The president, an American-trained engineer, showed considerable political tact, marked time, consolidated his position by taking a symbolic oath first at Tahrir Square on June 29 and later in an official ceremony on June 30 and then struck. (He had defeated Mubarak’s prime minister, Ahmad Shafik, in the presidential election.)

On Aug 12, he retired Field Marshal Mohammad Hussain Tantawi as Scaf chief and defence minister, and even though he retained him in his cabinet, he sacked the three services chiefs. Moreover, he rescinded the order dissolving the 100-man constitution-making body and won a resounding victory when the first round of the Dec 15 referendum approved the new constitution.

In another placatory move, the Muslim Brotherhood president withdrew a decree that had barred courts from reviewing his actions. The opposition had called the decree “a coup against legitimacy”. Morsi also added to his stature when he played a major role in effecting a truce in Gaza.

In Gaza, Israel demonstrated its fire power by killing over 100 people in a week-long blitz in November, but it suffered a major diplomatic defeat on Nov 29 when an overwhelming majority of the General Assembly members agreed to give Palestine non-state member status, with President Mahmoud Abbas calling it Palestine’s “birth certificate”. Israel showed its hubris by announcing the building of 3,000 new houses in the heart of the West Bank.

But Syria’s agony overshadowed all other developments as forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad fought back to crush a rebellion that had been raging now for 21 months. Both sides committed horrible rights violations as the death toll reached an unbelievable 40,000. Unlike Libya, there was no direct foreign intervention, but Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar were reported to be discreetly giving material support to the rebels, most of them Syrian army deserters. In August, Assad’s own prime minister, Riad Hijab, was reported by the opposition to have defected to Jordan.

Fighting raged throughout the country, with the capital itself attacked. While Russian and Chinese vetoes came to Assad’s help in the Security Council and pre-empted sanctions, the US and the European Union warned Assad of consequences if he used chemical weapons against the dissidents. Several peace attempts, including that led by former UN chief Kofi Annan, produced no results. By the end of December, 69 foreign missions had wound up in Damascus, and most Pakistan embassy staff had been evacuated.

Meanwhile, the Iranian nuclear issue continued to defy solutions as Tehran warned it could pull out of the Non-Proliferation Treaty if Israel attacked. The Iranian warning by nuclear negotiator Ali Asghar Soltanieh came a day after the US Senate slapped more sanctions on Iran on Nov 29. With Gaza and Syria, 2012 was the Middle East’s Gotterdammerung.

The writer is a member of staff.