It’s been a tumultuous year in the Arab world as citizens from Syria to Libya struggle to shake off the binds of authoritarian rule.
We asked The World’s Middle East correspondent Matthew Bell to page back through his notes, and look for standout moments in 2012 and suggest what to keep an eye on in the year ahead.
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Marco Werman: It has been a mixed bag, to say the least, in the Middle East. There is, of course, a civil war that continues to roil Syria. Just this morning President Bashar Al-Assad’s forces bombed parts of Damascus, along with rebel-held sections of Aleppo. Revolutionary momentum has stalled in other spots as well, like Bahrain and Saudi Arabia. But the Arab Spring has also given birth to fledgling democracies, in places like Tunisia and Libya. Today we are checking in with our correspondents on various issues, and we turn now to The World’s Matthew Bell in Jerusalem. He says a year ago the mood in Egypt was electric.
Matthew Bell: People were looking ahead at the first real, free presidential election in the history of Egypt. They were talking about getting a new president, about getting a new constitution. There was a real can-do spirit. Here’s an example of what I’m talking about, Marco, from an activist I talked to at a rally for one of Egypt’s presidential candidates back in May.
Egyptian Activist: The Egyptian population was going to change as Egypt. We are going to make a new rule, that the government is not responsible for everything. Government is responsible for planning. Government is responsible for supporting new services, okay? But the Egyptian population who is going to work is going to motivate himself to [xx] his country. Not only the government will, but the Egyptian population is going to be.
Werman: So Matthew, what about that can-do spirit today in Egypt?
Bell: I don’t want to say it’s gone completely but what a difference in the last visit to Egypt, which was last month. What was going on was yet another election. This was, I think it was the eighth time that people were going to the polls to vote for a very controversial draft constitution in a referendum. And the excitement for the most part was gone. A real frustration with President Mohamed Morsi, who is the Muslim Brotherhood’s candidate. Even people who were voting for the constitution, many of them I talked to, it just seemed that they were hoping for the best, voting yes, and just wanted to move on. Here’s an example of what I’m talking about. I spoke with the Cairo University professor Mustafa Kamal Sayed, and here he is talking a little bit about how even some supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood are really let down by what they have seen in recent month.
Mustafa Kamal Sayed: People had very good ideas about how efficient, how honest, how clever Muslim Brothers would be in running the country, and we saw a level of incompetence that far exceeds anything that was experienced at the time of Hosni Mubarak.
Werman: Wow, he’s kind of disappointed. Matthew what is the state of Egypt’s constitution right now?
Bell: It’s passed, so legally it’s moving forward, but there’s a sense that this was rushed through and it doesn’t really have the consensus that a constitution should have for the country’s future.
Werman: Another huge story in the Mideast, of course, is Syria. You recently went to Jordan to meet and speak with Syrian refugees there. What did you find? What did you hear?
Bell: You listen to analysts who’ve been following events in Syria, and some are at this point saying that we could be seeing the beginning of the end, that maybe Bashar Al-Assad’s days are numbered in Syria. But I have to say, when you go and you hear some of the stories from refugees, people that have left everything behind, I mean, I saw videos that I thought, these are going to give me nightmares, and just heard heartbreaking details about people’s lives and the scale of the human misery. It’s really mind-boggling and it makes it hard to think about an end-game in Syria coming any time soon.
Werman: The Mideast obviously continues to be consistently the hottest neighborhood in the world, Matthew. I guess you’re girding yourself for another tumultuous year ahead. What story do you think might point the way to what’s ahead right now?
Bell: Well, from where I’m sitting here in Jerusalem, the first big story of the year, of course, is the Israeli election, the national election. Everyone expects Benjamin Netanyahu to win and to be prime minister again. But I think the big question is how is Israel, the most important US ally in the region, going to work with a second-term Obama administration. What is going to happen with the two-state solution, which has been sort of the bedrock road map, if you will, for US policy in this region for decades? And there are real questions about whether this is even possible still, and whether Israeli politics and the Obama administration’s priorities are going to gel going forward.
Werman: The World’s Mideast correspondent Matthew Bell in Jerusalem.
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