The year’s legacies

It has become a media tradition around the New Year to look back at the highlights of the year – and, indeed, I have always done so here on Topical Creativity. This year, however, I am not giving you a blow-by-blow reminder of the past twelve months. Instead I present you with a list of events which have struck me as most important, the moments which, when we look back, will mark turning points and define 2013. And so, in no particular order, here goes:

  • The US government shut itself down.

This was a rather dramatic way for the Republicans and Democrats to prove that they hate each other, considering the uncertainty the move could have created on the financial markets and the hundreds of thousands of people they sent home from work. In the end, however, the Republicans saw their popularity ratings tumble so far that they were forced to compromise – something they hadn’t done for a while. Once the government was back up and running, Congress actually passed a budget for the first time since 2009. There is a feeling that maybe – just maybe – this heralds a new era in which the governing parties tone down partisanship and, you know, actually govern.

  • France intervened in Mali

The situation in Mali provided us with several lessons. Firstly, the French President may not actually be as wet as he appears (although with his approval ratings bobbing around the 20% mark, this doesn’t seem to have made him any more popular). Secondly, Western intervention can lead to good outcomes if it has a defined purpose and is planned thoroughly – news indeed to many. Although Mali remains unstable, the country’s Islamist rebels no longer threaten the vast majority of the population, especially as French forces still stand in their way. Lastly, we saw that a new wave of terrorism is emerging, this time not in the Middle East but in Africa, where groups take advantage of failed states and rampant poverty. This fact was highlighted by the later attacks on an oil plant in Nigeria and a shopping centre in Nairobi, Kenya’s capital. The world is still waking up to this new development.

  • Syria’s President Assad got away with gassing his civilians to death

Despite France’s success in Mali, the West spectacularly failed to hold Assad to account for his use of chemical weapons. Chilling images of dead children could not overcome the political legacies of Iraq and Afghanistan, and although many, including Obama and Cameron, wanted to act, nothing was done. And with that, the West lost its credibility as the world’s protector. What this means for the perceived world order is yet to be seen.

The civil war is now close to entering its third year. Having already claimed over 125,000 Syrian lives, it is now threatening the peace in neighbouring Lebanon and across the region. And the protracted length of the war is causing the moderate opposition to lose ground while Islamists grow stronger as disaffection grows. An uncomfortable situation is now emerging in which no one particularly wants either side to win. This makes moving towards a peace deal increasingly complicated. Recently, talks have begun in Geneva, but with key players like Iran absent from the table, no one is holding their breath.

  • A deal was made with Iran over its nuclear programme

After years of stalemate, the ice between the US and Iraq has begun to thaw around the edges. Negotiations have finally yielded a deal. Although interim, the deal goes a fair way in limiting Iran’s ability to quickly manufacturing a bomb without anyone knowing. It provides a glimmer of hope for those arguing that the new President will really be a moderate and try to open up his country. It remains to be seen, however, if the Supreme Leader will let him do so. It is possible that the economic sanctions the rest of the world has imposed on Iran will force the Ayatollah to give ground in order to keep a lid on growing domestic resentment. On the other hand, the Ayatollah’s power is legitimised by a cultivated sense of an ideological battle between Iran and the ‘Evil Empire’ of the US. If the two countries enter a period of rapprochement, this legitimacy simply disappears, and so perhaps the economic sanctions pose less of a personal threat to the Ayatollah. Either way, change is coming to Iran and its place in the world.

  • Chaos came to Egypt again

The heady days of the Arab spring are a thing of the past. In early 2011 the world was fooled into thinking that people power and optimism could transform autocratic states into liberal democracies. Alas, the naysayers were right: it wasn’t to be. When massive protests erupted again in Egypt against the Islamist President this summer, in anger at his attempted power grab and undemocratic ways, there was a brief sense that Egypt new what it wanted and was going to get it. But then the army – the kingpin of the ancien regime – arrested the President and staged a coup. After a year’s interlude, the generals were back in power and promising new elections. But with the recent banning of the Muslim Brotherhood, it is unclear who anyone would vote for and, most importantly, if the army would honour the people’s decision should an election actually be held. As the rest of the Middle East has a habit of following where Egypt boldly goes, these questions will prove very important in 2014.

  • We lost a “giant of history”

Nelson Mandela died this year, at the age of 95. The rebel, freedom fighter, President of South Africa and world statesman will be missed dearly, but his iconic status lives on in his legacy. He taught the world many lessons: endurance, forgiveness, devotion to a cause. The question now is whether, with Madiba gone, his country and others can live up to his ideal of rainbow nations free from the scourge of racial oppression. Probably not, but his death has certainly highlighted the failure of South Africa’s current President, Jacob Zuma, to help his people or, indeed, to act within the law. Such increased scrutiny suggests it may be a choppy year ahead for South Africa.

  • A new round of reforms began in China

This development garnered less media attention than my other highlights of 2013, but it may be one of the most significant. With China fast becoming a candidate to be a new superpower, how the vast country controls its internal affairs will, more and more, shape everyone else’s too. The latest gathering of the top echelons of the Communist Party, under it’s relatively new leader Xi Jinping, resulted in the announcement of a relaxation of the infamous one child policy and the extension of market based economics. China is not embarking on an unstoppable march towards liberalism, but it is showing that it will abandon ideological dogma if circumstances require it. This will have one of two opposing effects: make the new China easier to work with, or increasingly unpredictable.

Stop stereotyping Northwest Africa

The events of recent weeks, in both Algeria and Mali, seems to have surprised many globe watchers. A militant Islamist force with somewhat inevitable links to Al-Qaeda suddenly began to threaten Bamako, the Malian capital, forcing the ex-colonialist power, France, to intervene and save the city from harsh sharia law. In retaliation to such an ‘invasion’, another force attacked a BP-run oil plant in Algeria, taking hostages and then killing many foreign workers. At a first glance, the continent seems to have taken a dramatic turn for the worse. It took Western media about a day to dub the area ‘the new Middle East’.

But surely the threat was obvious before it became overt? This is a region with problems which hardly anywhere else has to deal with to such extremes – tribalism, vast ungovernable areas, debt, poverty and political instability. Any of these factors would be cause for alarm, taken together it is astounding that Britain’s government is only now focusing on intellegence gathering in the region. The realities which make life for many Africans so hard also breed religious fanaticism. We cannot just be noticing the relationship between cause and effect.

At best, certain recent events have made things worse and caught our attention. The Arab spring has turned countries which once acted the region’s police force (Egypt, particularly) into political quagmires. The Malian rebels grouped together in neighbouring Libya. At worst though, it is only the direct threat to Western lives and interests which has made us care about the world’s most vulnerable nations.

Leaving this debate over the reasons for the West’s unpreparedness for you to mull over, I want to examine why the press’s comparison of Northwest Africa to the Middle East is flawed. And flawed it is.

One of the central causes of Middle Eastern Islamism in recent years has been systematic repression and abuse by entrenched militarist regimes. This hasn’t been the case in Africa. Here, although political freedom has been scant, there has not been any stable regimes. If the Middle East has suffered from overbearing power, northwest Africa has suffered from a vacuum of it. The West would do well to remember this crucial difference as it attempts to help liberalise both regions. It should also keep in mind that its aim is not just fighting terrorism directed at its shores, but also securing the safety of its southern neighbours.