A Swell Of Elections In Post-Arab Spring Middle East

Two years after the Arab Spring changed the political landscape in Middle East, the region realized this year that the second stage of the pivotal uprisings is more difficult than the euphoric first. Host Jacki Lyden talks to Robin Wright, a joint fellow at the U.S. Institute of Peace and the Woodrow Wilson International Center, about the important events in 2013 expected to shape the future of the Middle East.

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JACKI LYDEN, HOST:

Yesterday, we spoke with NPR's Cairo bureau chief, Leila Fadel, about the news she's covered in Egypt in 2012. Now, we're going to look forward. Robin Wright has written extensively about the Middle East as a former correspondent for The Washington Post. She's a joint fellow at the U.S. Institute of Peace and the Woodrow Wilson International Center and an author. And she joins me now in our studio. Robin Wright, thank you very much for coming in.

ROBIN WRIGHT: Thank you.

LYDEN: And happy New Year.

WRIGHT: Same to you.

LYDEN: So from your longtime analyst perspective, I know you have been back to Tunis this year, back to North Africa, back to the region, what can we expect from the Middle East in 2013?

WRIGHT: Well, 2013 is probably going to be more difficult than the first two years of the Arab uprisings. In the past two years, we've seen a deepening of the political divide, a worsening of the economic challenges and real security problems. But 2013 is really interesting because of all the elections across the region. You have Israel's election in January. Bibi Netanyahu is likely to win, but he's facing an increasing challenge from the right.

And, in fact, the most interesting trend in the region is the rise of the right or the religious right everywhere. Jordan faces elections in January, Egypt probably in February. And that will decide whether the Muslim Brotherhood really has a hold on power or whether there's a challenge from the religious right, the Salafis. And then you have Tunisia and Libya facing new constitutions and elections for permanent governments: Iraq local elections, Palestinians' long-delayed elections. It will be a pivotal year on many fronts.

LYDEN: I want to talk about phase two of the Arab Spring, because we're talking about the rise of the religious right. Not much U.S. influence to be seen, really, is there, in terms of U.S. ability to have anything to do with what goes on internally in Egypt.

WRIGHT: Well, when you remove dictators, you find that democracies have lots of constituents that they have to be accountable to and lots of different opinions. And so it's harder for the United States to have influence. This is also a period where throughout the region, there's a sense that they have captured control of their future, that this isn't in some ways, an end of 200 years of colonial Western presence. And so the United States is going to have less influence, both because of the challenges inside and because of the new political realities.

LYDEN: We can't leave Syria completely off the table, obviously, a stark outlook, just rejected Russia's latest overture to broker peace talks.

WRIGHT: Syria is likely to face some kind of transition this year, whether it is a peaceful transition or whether it is the ouster of President Assad. The reality is that he can't survive politically anymore. The second question is, is the Syrian coalition that has been endorsed by the United States strong enough to be the alternative? They're very divided. And what happens in Syria will determine a lot about what happens during phase two in other parts of the region that have not witnessed transitions.

LYDEN: Phase two of the Arab Spring, you mean.

WRIGHT: Phase two.

LYDEN: Yeah. Robin, we probably can't leave this conversation without talking about one of the greatest powers in the Middle East, and that's Iran.

WRIGHT: Iran either has to step up and compromise with the world's major powers or on its controversial nuclear program or face the real danger of a military strike by whether it's Israel or the United States or some kind of international coalition. I think the Iranians are aware, particularly because of the increasing sanctions, that the international community is not going to compromise. The question is whether the supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, is willing to bite the bullet, literally, and compromise in ways that could potentially have political fallout inside Iran as well.

LYDEN: Robin Wright is the joint fellow at the U.S. Institute of Peace and the Woodrow Wilson International Center, also the author of "Rock the Casbah: Rage and Rebellion Across the Islamic World." Thank you so much, Robin.

WRIGHT: Thank you.

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