I presume that at the end of each year, pundits, writers, and bloggers gather to discuss the year’s political trends. Most of what they discuss is invariably pulled out of thin air, but I hope I’m basing my own analyses on enough evidence to escape that general description. It’s accurate to characterize 2004 as the year of liberal democratic hopes: the Orange Revolution in Ukraine, the new parliamentary elections in Georgia consolidating 2003’s Rose Revolution, the calls for democratic revolution in Iran. This continued into early 2005 with Lebanon and the scheduled elections in Palestine.
And then it all crashed. New Ukraine was plagued by corruption. The Tulip Revolution didn’t go anywhere. Frustration with the slow pace of reform in Iran catapulted Ahmadinejad to power instead of ushering in a new democratic system. Fatah looked weak on corruption, weak on Israel, and weak on public order, while Hamas looked like a fresh change.
In the Middle East, 2006 was the year of dashed hopes, even more so than 2005. Iraq was irrevocably wrecked long before 2006 started, but 2006 was the year the violence escalated. Most wars kill many more people than any subsequent occupations; in Iraq, there were more people killed in 2006 than in 2003. The Sunni-Shi’a rift had been there for fifteen years, but intensified over the course of last year, and spilled over to other countries in the region: Iran, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon. Throughout most of the year, there was only escalating violence and increasing legitimization of Muqtada Al-Sadr, but right at the end, the execution of Saddam was probably carried out by Al-Sadr’s followers, rather than by the government.
The single country in the region whose hopes were dashed the most was of course Lebanon. The Cedar Revolution was supposed to usher in a new age of democracy built along the same pillarized model that had worked in the Netherlands for about a century. Hezbollah was supposed to reform itself from a terrorist organization to a legitimate if fundamentalist political party. And the country was supposed to become independent of Syrian and Iranian influence. To a large extent due to Israel’s lack of knowledge of foreign policy responses that don’t involve military force, those hopes disintegrated in the summer of 2006.
In Palestine, Hamas won the parliamentary election, which Israel considered equivalent to a writ permitting the IDF to kidnap elected Palestinian officials at will. As had happened in Nicaragua in the early 1980s, the Hamas government found itself stripped of development aid, and became increasingly radicalized as a result. Israel responded the only way it is familiar with, i.e. with military force, and killed 655 Palestinian civilians in the Occupied Territories, up from 190 the previous year.
And in the US and Iran, two conservative Presidents with a vested interest in muzzling liberal democratic opposition escalated their saber-rattling game. In Iran, that meant crackdowns on opposition media, especially in the wake of Israel and Hezbollah’s war. Although toward the end of the year, reformists gained power in the election, real power in Iran lies in the hands of unelected Supreme Leader Khamenei, who is as opposed to democratic reforms as Ahmadinejad.
At the same time, 2006 was the year of recognition. In Iraq, the situation became so hopeless it became impossible to pretend everything was going smoothly. Right now the only developed country where the people support the occupation of Iraq is Israel, where indiscriminately killing Arab civilians is seen as a positive thing. The Iranian people did the best they could to weaken the regimes within the parameters of the law. Hamas’s failure to deliver on its promise to make things better led to deep disillusionment among the Palestinians, which did not express itself in switching support to even more radical organizations. And most positively, the Lebanese people, including plenty of Shi’as, came to see Hezbollah not as a populist organization that would liberate them from the bombs of Israel, but as a cynical militia that played with their lives for no good reason.
Elsewhere, there were no clear regional trends. However, the political events of 2006 in the United States might point to a national trend of increased liberalism. On many issues the trend is simply a continuation or culmination of events dating at least fifteen years back, but on some, especially economic and foreign policy ones, the shift was new. In 2002 and 2004, the American people voted for more war; in 2006 they voted for less. While they didn’t elect enough Senate Democrats to withdraw from Iraq, they did express utter disapproval of the country’s actions in Iraq. This trend originated in the Haditha massacre of 2005, and Bush’s approval rating crashed in 2005 rather than in 2006, but it was in 2006 that the general discontent with the direction of American politics was expressed in a decisive vote for a politically weak party over Bush’s party.
So after the hope of 2004 and early 2005, 2006 was not just the year when violence rebounded and democracy retreated in the Middle East, but also the year when public unrest with the status quo grew. This unrest did not manifest itself in any movement with real political power, and I don’t want to be too naively optimistic to predict that it will. I mentioned that the Iranians did everything within the parameters of the law to support democratic reforms; but Iran’s system is so hopelessly rigged that nothing within the parameters of the law can change anything. Still, indirect action typically sets the stage for direct action; Martin Luther King’s civil rights movement stood on the shoulders of decades of NAACP and ACLU litigation.
The cliché way to end this would be to look at the situation in Iran and to a lesser extent Lebanon and Palestine, and posit that the country is now at a crossroads. I don’t think it is; the Iranian people have had the infrastructure and social institutions to overthrow theocracy for a number of years now, and came closest to doing so in 2002, before the US invasion of Iraq. It may be that the Iranian people have grown so tired of the regime that even “We hate America and Israel more than our opponents” isn’t enough to hold Khamenei and Ahmadinejad afloat. Or it may be that Israel will decide to save the regime by launching military strikes against its nuclear weapons program. And it may be that after either of these scenarios, there will be a political reversal the next year modeled on a color/flower revolution or on a reaction against such a revolution. Hopes can be dashed, and dashed hopes can be rescued, as 2006 taught us.