As our country looks forward to 2014, we often look back on the year that was. For Middle Eastern politics 2013 can be summed up as the year that dealt a major blow to Islamic fundamentalism. While Islamic fundamentalism hasn't been defeated, the tide seems to be turning.
Ever since the Iranian Islamic Revolution (1979), the Taliban seizure of power in Afghanistan (1996) and the 9/11 attack (2001), Americans have seen a rising tide of Greater Middle Eastern Islamic fundamentalism. The electoral victories of Islamist parties in Turkey in 2002 (AKP), Gaza Strip in 2006 (Hamas), Egypt (Muslim Brotherhood) and Tunisia (Ennahda) have reinforced this trend. But this stronghold is beginning to fade.
Why has this been happening? In every country there are often several Islamist parties that fight with each other. A further regional split is the Sunni/Shiite division. Secular military and security forces, aligned with the old order and aware of their fate in fundamentalist states, are mostly hostile to the fundamentalists. Many secularists, women, minorities and increasingly youth are determined to avoid the traditional straitjacket of the fundamentalists. The inability of the fundamentalists, who lack political or economic experience, to run a modern globalized economy or open polity is a serious problem. Jobs, not religion, are the main issue for much of the youth. External intervention with massive financial support, such as the $15 billion provided by Gulf States to Egypt, can be critical in stopping the fundamentalists.
In Egypt the destruction of the Islamist regime and jailing of its supporters has been a major setback. Despite problems, the military after the July coup seems likely secure with most Muslim Brotherhood leaders in jail or on trial. If a September Zogby poll showing 70 percent confidence in the military holds, this will be a major defeat for fundamentalists.
For a decade in Turkey Recep Tayyip Erdogan's AKP was a showcase Islamist party winning three elections, running the economy effectively, and taming the pro-Western military. But his support for the losing parties - Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, the rebels in Syria - and supporting actors unpopular in Turkey, Hamas in Gaza (15 percent popularity), and the Kurds in Iraq, have left him isolated. As his attacks on Israel have upset NATO leaders, so too have his hints that the Americans are responsible have alienated a once close ally.
Rising economic problems, Erdogan's fundamentalism and authoritarian style brought out hundreds of thousands of largely secular protesters into the streets this summer. The large-scale corruption scandal that led to the resignation of three cabinet ministers coupled with Erdogan's reliance on major capital inflows and large current account deficits, which are more than 7 percent of GNP, means he is in political trouble.
Tunisia, after Turkey, seemed to be the place where the moderate Islamists were safest. In October 2011 the Ennahda party won 40 percent of the vote. Two years later the Ennahda party hasn't lived up to expectations. They've been unable to manage or jumpstart the economy with 22 percent unemployment, among other scandals. Things got so bad that Ennahda voluntarily ceded power to an interim technocratic government and saw a favorability rating crash from 37 percent in 2011 to 18 percent a year later.
In Syria it seemed likely that an opposition group of secularists and Islamists would overthrow the secular dictator Bashar Assad. Now, despite the growing role of Islamist al Nusra and ISIS, Bashar Assad, with support from Russia, Iran and Hezbollah, will likely stay in power. This outcome is a major setback for the Islamists.
Ever since the slim electoral victory in Gaza in 2006 and the crushing of Fatah forces in 2007, Islamist Hamas has ruled Gaza. The ascension of Morsi to the Egyptian Presidency in 2012 seemed to suggest a brighter future. But with the military coup in Egypt, Gaza is increasingly isolated. With a $900 GNP/capita and 31 percent unemployment rate and not to mention being labeled a terrorist state by the United States and EU, the future of Gaza looks grim. Polls have shown that 49 percent of Gazans wish to emigrate while only 29 percent of Gazans support Hamas. The future for Hamas seems bleak.
As Iran has shown, none of this means that Islamic fundamentalism is finished. But, for the first time in more than two decades, the wave of Islamic fundamentalism in the Greater Middle East outside the Iranian Shiite sphere may well be receding, at least for now. 2014 figures to be a pivotal year in determining if Islamic fundamentalism will continue to have a pulse in the Middle Eastern political sphere.
Jonathan Adelman is a professor at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver.