With renewed fighting in Libya; lingering war in Syria and Yemen; and volatile politics in Israel, prospects in the Middle East seem hopeless. However, in the midst of what seems dark, I would like to point out a few pinpricks of light that have shown through. For many, it is difficult to find “good news” from the Middle East. I would say that searching for “good news” is perhaps not very productive because an event’s relative good or bad is often revealed later, but for sake of simplicity, here some recent events that look positive.
The AKP (the Justice and Development Party) of Turkey just lost the municipal elections in the country’s three largest cities, Ankara, Istanbul, and Izmir. This loss is a significant occurrence. The party’s leader and president of Turkey since 2002, Recep Tayyıp Erdoğan, was formerly the mayor Istanbul and has used urban migrants in Istanbul and other urban areas in the country as a key piece of his power base. Erdoğan and the AKP have become increasingly authoritarian using their power to purge hundreds of thousands of state employees and has largely silenced vocal opposition. Therefore, the loss of these elections, even at the local level, is a blow to the president and the AKP’s prestige. Moreover, this loss has removed Erdoğan’s air of invincibility. More importantly, these elections point to a possible shift in the public perception of the AKP in Turkey’s urban centers. The municipal elections could herald a possible political shift.
Shake up in Algeria
Abdelaziz Bouteflika has been president of Algeria since 1999, nearly 20 years. In the last four or five years, Bouteflika’s health has deteriorated and has rarely appeared in public, but has retained the presidency. This spring Bouteflika said that he would stand for election again. This announcement raised widespread discontent. This discontent quickly transformed into massive street protests in Algeria’s largest cities. At first, protestors called for Bouteflika not to seek a fifth term, but later protestors called for him to step down. The protests were peaceful and were unmolested by the police. This is no small feat for a country that was wracked by civil war (1991- 2002) with the loss of 150,000 lives. Not a single life was reported lost in the most recent protests. On April 2, 2019, facing mounting protests and having lost the confidence of the army, Bouteflika resigned. An interim president was appointed and elections have been called for some time this year.
Surprising Exit in Sudan
Omar al-Bashir, president of Sudan since 1989, yes, 30 years, has faced widespread protests since December of 2018 and recently they have re-ignited. What began as street protests against economic policy has transformed into a more coherent political movement, which has called for the president’s ouster. On April 11, these protests netted results when after weeks of unrest with some loss of life, the military seized control of the presidential palace and arrested Omar al- Bashir. This was a surprising development. However, perhaps more surprisingly, Ahmed Awad Ibn Auf, leader of the coup, resigned and turned control of the country over to another general, Abdel Fattah Abdelrahman Burhan. The new leader and government have pledged to remove any trace of Omar al-Bashir’s regime and have promised elections in the near future.
So, to summarize three of the perpetual presidents of the Middle East were effectively challenged without major violence. In the last month, street protests and the ballot box have dented and ousted three fixtures of the Middle East. Bouteflika and al-Bashisr are out and Erdoğan was soundly defeated by a popular vote. Erdoğan has responded denouncing the protests and the municipal election. He will not simply give up and looks unassailable, but a month ago so did Bouteflika and al-Bashir.