Elections in 2013 Will Indicate Future Direction of ‘Arab Spring’

By Patrick Goodenough | January 2, 2013 | 12:10 AM EST

Salafist lawmakers attend a session of the Egyptian parliament in this January 2012 file photo. The Islamist-dominated assembly was later disbanded by court order, and Egyptians will return to the polls before the end of February to elect a new one. (AP Photo/Asmaa Waguih, File)

(CNSNews.com) – Among dozens of elections scheduled around the world this year, several in countries across the Middle East will provide further clues about the future of a movement that sparked much optimism when it erupted two years ago, followed by doubt and disillusionment as it began to derail during 2012.

Two of the countries at the forefront of the “Arab spring,” Tunisia and Egypt, will hold elections in 2013, as well two other Arab states that have thus far sidestepped citizens’ demands for meaningful change, Jordan and Lebanon.

For the second time in a year, Egyptians will be returning to the ballot box within the first two months of this year to elect a national parliament, the People’s Assembly. In the last election, held in November 2010-January 2011 the Muslim Brotherhood and hardline Salafists between them took about 70 percent of the seats. That parliament was dissolved by court order.

The upcoming election follows the recent approval by referendum of a controversial Islamist constitution, and observers are keenly watching for signs that deep divisions over the document may energize the non-Islamist opposition.

The National Salvation Front, a coalition of secularist and liberal parties, is planning to run on a single joint list, a move expected to enhance their prospects of weakening the Muslim Brotherhood’s hold over the 498-seat legislature.

Its leaders include some of Egypt’s most prominent non-Islamist politicians, former presidential election hopefuls Hamdeen Sabbahi and Amr Moussa – who came in third and fifth place respectively in that contest, won by Muslin Brotherhood flagbearer Mohammed Morsi – and the former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, Mohamed ElBaradei.

Tunisians last year elected a constituent assembly to draft a new national constitution, and the Islamist party Ennahda won a plurality of the seats, giving an early indication of the direction the small North African country’s political transition may take.

This year the country that ignited the “Arab spring” will have the opportunity to either fortify the Islamist trend, or rein it in. In June Tunisia will hold its first parliamentary and presidential election since the ousting of President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.

Opinion polls show the parliamentary race to be a likely tussle for dominance between Ennahda and Call of Tunisia, a grouping of liberals, secularists and some remnants of Ben Ali’s former ruling party.

The main contenders in the presidential contest include the current prime minister, Hamadi Jebali of Ennahda, Beji Caid el Sebsi of Call of Tunisia, and the current interim president, Moncef Marzouki, a centrist ally of Ennahda who has been the target of protests by Tunisians who say the revolution has not improved their lives.

Which of the country’s twin elections ultimately proves more important remains to be seen, as constituent assembly members are split over whether the new Tunisia should have a presidential or parliamentary system of government.

In Jordan, where King Abdullah has offered limited reforms – and appointed five prime ministers in two years – amid growing pressure from the local Muslim Brotherhood affiliate, Islamic Action Front (IAF), voters will go to the polls on January 23 to elect a new parliament.

Eight hundred and twenty candidates are competing for the150-seat House of Deputies, according to data released by the national election committee on Tuesday.

Jordan’s King Abdullah II has appointed five prime ministers in two years. (AP Photo/Jordanian Royal Palace, Yousef Allan)

The IAF is boycotting the election, as it did the last one in 2010, and is demanding that it be canceled. Among their complaints, the IAF and others argue that Jordan’s election law unfairly over-represents rural areas and under-represents urban areas where more Islamists and Jordanians of Palestinian origin are located.

Meanwhile the presence of more than 200,000 refugees who have fled the conflict in Syria adds another destabilizing element and drain on Jordan’s economy, at a time when the king is planning already-unpopular austerity measures after the election

Some analysts say the election may not be the reform highpoint which Abdullah hopes for – a critical “station on the political reform roadmap,” in his words – but a tipping point that ushers in serious unrest.

Civil war fears

Deep uncertainty also awaits Lebanon, another Arab country which has been largely unaffected by the “Arab spring” reform drive but severely impacted by the crisis in neighboring Syria.

No date has been confirmed for Lebanon’s parliamentary elections, scheduled for June 2013, but what is certain is that the outcome of the Syrian conflict will determine the balance of power in Lebanon for years to come.

If President Bashar Assad’s regime falls, the Shi’ite terrorist group Hezbollah will lose one of its two major allies. That scenario would strengthen the hand of the March 14 alliance, the anti-Syrian coalition led by former Prime Minister Saad Hariri, and could result in growing pressure on Hezbollah to disarm, in line with U.N. Security Council resolutions.

Hariri last month accused Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah of not wanting the 2013 election to take place at all and said he was banking on civil war in Lebanon.

Lebanese President Michel Sleiman has called a meeting for January 7 to resume a process of all-party “national dialogue” aimed at delivering an election law to enable the poll to be held on time.

The March 14 alliance has been boycotting the talks since a top Lebanese security official was assassinated last October. It wants the government to resign and a neutral cabinet to be set up to oversee the elections.

Unrelated to the “Arab spring” but also key to the future of the region, voters in two other Mideast countries, Iran and Israel, will also vote this year.

The results of legislative elections in Israel this month and presidential elections in Iran in June will impact both relations between the two countries and, potentially, broader regional stability.

Opinion polls indicate that Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu will win another term.

In Tehran, a pool of candidates that must be approved by the Guardians Council – the religious-judicial body that oversees elections – will compete to succeed President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, in a contest expected to return a loyalist of supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei to the presidency.

Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow