The Mediterranean: Yet Another Year of Challenge

With this brief overview, the PoliticsBlog is picking up the thread on events around the Mediterranean, going into a new year bound to be challenging. Many countries bordering on the Mediterranean have strong links to Russia and therefore are indirectly affected by the war in Ukraine. Withstanding any negative impact will be a test to their resilience.

One of the side effects of the invasion of Ukraine by Russia was the shift in focus away from previous hotspots – for instance Sudan, Libya, or Ethiopia. Regionals wars, military coups, famine and drought lost the attention of the general public and decision-makers occupied by the destruction of a large European country and the potential widening of the conflict.

Unfair or not – this shift is manifest and real. And all the same, the many countries around the Mediterranean and in the Northern half of Africa have huge challenges to deal, challenges that are worth looking at. The following overview attempts to highlight a few of the hotspots along the shores of the Med that may or will make headlines this coming year. In a second part, the PoliticsBlog will look at some of the African nations’ developments.

Turkey

The NATO-member and bridge between Europe and Asia is due for what likely will be the last election for President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. His hold on power seems fragile following the massive economic difficulties of the past years, difficulties that are far from over and that strongly impacted on the livelihoods of ordinary citizens. With surging prices and high interest rates, the times are hard for the Turks. The government also faced the huge task of accommodating some 5 million Syrian refugees. Under such circumstances, having to go to the polls is not an enviable task for any government.

Erdogan is a shrewd tactician and pounced on the opportunity the war presented him – despite the complicated relationship between Russia and Turkey. Being on reasonable terms with the Russian president, Erdogan quickly positioned himself as a possible interlocutor between Ukraine and Russia and brokered the deal that allows the export of such vital goods as wheat from the region. He also pounced on the chance to extract a maximum price for the accession of Sweden and Finland into NATO, given the need of unanimity. The president has arguably had a better time dealing with foreign affairs than matters closer to his home. But elections tend to be fought over food prices, wages and inflation and less so over things far from home.

The question therefore is whether his maneuvering against his arguably strongest opponent – Istanbul city chief Ekrem Imamoglu of the CHP – will suffice to keep his AKP in power. The pretty transparent judicial attack on Imamoglu on allegations of insulting functionaries of the state, might backfire and help the opposition gain popularity.

The coming months will show how effective Erdogan has been in kindling a patriotic sentiment among those voters who could be tempted to vote for the opposition. This obviously also hinges on the question who can and will stand for the coalition of parties challenging Erdogan’s AKP. The elections are slated for June.

Tunisia

A country where the votes already have been counted is Tunisia. Though, of course, that was a fairly limited exercise by any standard. Fewer than one in ten voters bothered to take part on December 17, 2022. The parliamentary elections called by President Kais Saied had been boycotted by the opposition an even supporters of the president seem less than enthusiastic. This lackluster event doesn’t bode well for the country, where the Arab Spring was started.

Where once a spirit of democratic awakening swept away the old dictator, people seem to have descended into a sense of depression. Said an old xxx professor, had dissolved parliament in March 2022 and put in place a new constitution in the summer in a bid to break a political stalemate, combat corruption and kickstart an ailing economy hurt by the pandemic. While the maneuver of Said originally had been welcomed by many, he evidently has now lost the support of most people. Reports of a wave of migration by the young to Europe are a clear indication of what the mood in Tunis is like.

The situation is complicated by the role of Ennahda, the Islamic party that has been part of several coalition governments ruling Tunisia since Ben Ali was kicked out of the country. The group is said to have links to the Muslim Brotherhood, but has maintained a more moderate profile under long-term leader Rached Ghannouchi. When Saied dissolved parliament, he also removed Ghannouchi from his role as speaker. Essentially, there seems currently a lack of credible political force able to move the country out of the lethargy.

Lebanon

But the troubles of Tunisia bleak in comparison to those besetting the Lebanon. Situated in a region with a history of never-ending conflict between nations, religious and ethnic groups, this is a nation with little attention granted yet with a particularly unfortunate combination of problems. With Israel to the South and Syria to its East and North, Lebanon has not particularly “easy” neighbors by any standard, but what has made life even worse are the perennial tensions between Sunni and Shiite Islam and the implication of the sponsors of respective groups. To make matters worse, the local elites stand accused of having failed the population.

The most blatant example of this failure was the explosion of a silo in the harbor of Beirut in 2020. The absence of a capable government, the situation was deemed so precarious that French President Emmanuel Macron travelled to Beirut to promise his help, but also made clear that he wouldn’t entrust his money with the Lebanese government. The government of Prime Minister Hassan Diab resigned and Lebanon was left with an interregnum of 13 months, before a new prime minister, Najib Mikati, mustered the courage to take over. Elections held last summer raised the hope for a step towards a more stable future. Hezbollah and the allied groups lost their majority in parliament, while the reformist Lebanese Forces Party gained.

Currently, Lebanon is without a president and has a caretaker government.

Libya

Once a stable dictatorship under Muammar Ghaddafi, today Libya is better known for its failure to conjure up a coalition that might govern for all in this country rich in natural ressources. It is also an example of a country where the influence of foreign players hasn’t always been to the advantage of the population. Essentially, Libya has two rival political factions slugging it out over who can form a government. Fathi Bashagha for the Tobruk-based House of Representatives and Abdul Hamid Dbeibeh for the Tripoli-based Government of National Unity are the two key personalities.

Behind the politicians are the armed militias, the best-known being the Libyan National Army of Khalifa Haftar. And all the militias and armies are supported by one or more foreign powers, including Turkey, Qatar, Russia, the Emirates, Egypt. It’s a complicated situation and what’s more, the country relies on food imports from Ukraine and its neighboring bread baskets.

Libya thus is a very good example of a post-dictatorial countries descending into protracted chaos, where the needs of the population enjoy almost no significance. Anybody’s guess thus for how much longer this situation might continue.

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