Winter of discontent in West Asia

The conflict in Syria could destablise West Asia, the strategic land bridge between East and West.

In 2013, turbulent West Asia faces deepening crises between rulers and ruled.  The Arab Spring of 2011 which inspired hopes for democracy and progress has become a winter of discontent and despair. The two key countries are Egypt, the most populous Arab state, and Syria, heartland of the Eastern Arab World.

In Egypt the struggle is political.  The Muslim Brotherhood,suppressed since its founding in 1928, has used the ballot box to seize power after the uprising that ousted President Hosni Mubarak in 2011, after an 18-day popular uprising that galvanised the world.

The Brotherhood now controls the presidency and the upper house of parliament, and a constitution drafted by Muslim fundamentalists has been signed into law. In a February election, the movement hopes to win a plurality of seats in the lower house of parliament.
The Brotherhood's long-term objective is to transform Egypt into an "Islamic state" ruled by Muslim canon law, Sharia. Brotherhood ascendancy is disputed by liberal, leftist, rightist and moderate fundamentalist revolutionaries who are fighting for a "civil" or secular, pluralistic, democratic state. The contest between the fundamentalist and opposition camps is set to escalate during the election campaign. The Brotherhood's main rival is the 10-faction National Salvation Front, a coalition led by Nobel prize laureate Muhammad El-Baradei, former Arab League chief Amr Moussa, and former presidential candidate Hamdeen Sabahi.

Impose taxes

While the Front's aim is to confront the Brotherhood through democratic means, the Brotherhood is prepared to use both fair means and foul to counter this challenge. The Brotherhood-appointed  state prosecutor has initiated an investigation into allegations that the three Front leaders instigated Egyptians to overthrow the country's first elected civilian president, Muhammad Morsi, whose roots are in the Brotherhood. Both camps have a very difficult course to steer ahead of the poll. Morsi has to impose highly unpopular taxes on fuel, electricity, soft drinks, cement, and other goods and field credible candidates at a time voters are increasingly disillusioned with the Brotherhood and the opposition.

If Morsi postpones the taxes, $4.8 billion in loans urgently required to rescue Egypt's collapsing economy could be indefinitely delayed by the International Monetary Fund. Meanwhile, Brotherhood supporters demand jobs, clinics, schools, and better services.

While the outcome of the struggle in Egypt could determine the political orientation of  the Arab world, the ongoing conflict in Syria could destablise West Asia, the strategic land bridge between East and West. The war against the secular Baathist regime is being fought by numerous armed factions with competing agendas. The Cairo-based opposition Syrian National Coalition, which is expected to govern if the regime falls, has neither authority over fighting units nor experience in government.

The most competent armed group to emerge, Jabhat al-Nusra,is an offshoot of the Islamic State of Iraq, an al-Qa'ida affiliate which seeks to establish an Islamic Caliphate across the Arab world but cares little about Syria itself. Unless this war is halted, tens of thousands of Syrians will join the 45,000 slain during the 22 month revolt and hundreds of thousands will be added to the 1.5 million displaced or driven into exile.

The Islamic State of Iraq and similar groups have regrouped and reasserted themselves in Iraq where they can be expected to prosecute their campaign to oust the Shia fundamentalist regime installed by the US after its conquest of the country in 2003. Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki has responded by consolidating his personal grip on power.

Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states are also affected by this turmoil. Bahrain continues to seethe with Shia anger against the kingdom's Sunni rulers, Kuwaitis are contesting the autocratic style of the reigning Sabah family, Saudi Shias are confronting the Sunni monarchy and religious establishment, and the United Arab Emirates has been detaining dissidents and critics. Gulf instability could put at risk India's oil supplies and millions of Indian jobs. Meanwhile, the threat of regional war could increase after Israel's January parliamentary election when Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu is expected to return to power with an increased majority. He is determined to launch a military operation against Iran's nuclear facilities with the aim of preventing Tehran from developing nuclear weaponry.

Netanyahu hopes the window of opportunity will open if, as seems  likely, the West and Iran fail to resolve their dispute over its nuclear programme during the first months of 2013. Once Israel launches airstrikes against Iran, the US will be dragged into a conflict.  The Obama administration fears this could wreak even more havoc in West Asia and, if the Iranians disrupt the flow of Gulf oil to East and West, reverse global economic recovery.

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