Ten political parties to follow in the Middle East and North Africa in 2018

Ten political parties to follow in the Middle East and North Africa in 2018

2017 has been a whirlwind year for the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). The military defeat of the so-called Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, Moqtada al-Sadr’s visit to Saudi Arabia, the Qatar crisis, the Iraqi Kurd’s independence referendum, the surprise resignation of Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri and his eventually “un-resignation” upon return to Beirut, and now the recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel by the United States. Next year the Middle East will surely yield more twists and turns for global investors and diplomats alike.

Though the region remains highly autocratic and power is still concentrated in the hands of monarchs or dictators, political parties still remain active both as power brokers and disrupters. Islamist, nationalist, leftist, reformist, pro-Western and anti-Imperialist, protesting the ruling order or forging new coalitions; here are ten political parties in MENA and why it is important to watch them in 2018.

1. Ennahda Movement – Tunisia

In the aftermath of the Arab Spring, the future of political Islam now seems uncertain. In contrast to the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood that suffered at the hands of the “counter-revolution,” Tunisia’s Ennahda (meaning Renaissance) has managed not only to continue operating but with success. Though the party has numerous female lawmakers, it still struggles to gain traction with Tunisia’s largely secular society, which is skeptical of the movement. However, Ennahda’s view of Islam as a vehicle for peace and justice, along with its close relationship with Turkey will make it a key factor in North Africa’s political discourse. Party leader Rached Ghannouchi will continue to position the party as a defender of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s regional agenda (read Syria, Qatar, and Jerusalem) as well as political Islam against the counter-revolution. In addition, plans at home for unpopular economic reforms may provide Ennahda with new opportunities. If Tunisia is to carry on the torch of being the one country to emerge from the Arab Spring with its dignity intact, how the coalition between Ennahda and the ruling Nidaa Tunis continues to play out ahead of the 2019 elections will be critical for how long the Islamist party can continue dance with the secular elite. The country’s tenuous economy and the threat of terrorism will make the need for political stability paramount.

2. The Bread and Freedom Party – Egypt

Although he hasn’t announced plans to run for a second term, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi recently suggested that he would not seek a third term. However, for the time being, Sisi’s government has made it clear it is not entertaining any political challengers. The authoritarian trend is more than apparent with the moves against former Prime Minister Ahmed Shafiq and Colonel Ahmed Konsowa. Another figure, Khaled Ali, heads the Bread and Freedom Party, a small leftist party that has been heavily persecuted by the government of Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi. A human rights lawyer and political activist, Ali announced his bid for the 2018 presidential election in early November may yet be barred from running pending legal proceedings in January. Other members of his party have also been jailed on charges such as “misusing social media to incite against the state.” Though Ali stands little chance of winning, Egypt’s economy has been in a dismal state and, despite the heightened security measures, is still plagued with high-profile acts of terrorism. Austerity measures have been deeply unpopular and Ali has made food prices a key component of his campaign. The Egyptian Center for Public Opinion Research (Baseera) put public dissatisfaction with the government at 55 percent in October 2017.  As more middle-class Egyptians struggle with the rising prices, it remains to be seen whether Sisi’s political opponents will present an actual danger. 2018 may yield some clues.

3. Sadrist Movement – Iraq

Once branded “The most dangerous man in Iraq” Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr has remained a dynamic political force in post-Saddam Iraq. A staunch Iraqi nationalist, he speaks out against the United States and calls for U.S. troops to be withdrawn, and at the same time remains wary and critical of Iran. Standing apart from the other Shia political movements, last April, Sadr urged Iran’s ally in Syria, President Bashar al-Assad to step down to save his people from further suffering. In July, Sadr stunned regional observers by appearing in Saudi Arabia for a meeting with crowned prince Mohammed Bin Salman. Sadr also regularly stages large scale demonstrations, including a few in 2016 that penetrated the Green Zone, to demand political reforms and protest corruption. He will likely continue to use the threat of massive demonstrations to pressure the government to make good on its “war against corruption.” Sadr will also use his influence to curtail the Shia-dominated Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) and their future in post-war Iraq. Sadr will make good on his recent offer to disarm his militia, which would help the security situation in the country.  He is also exploring electoral alliances, including with the National Accord Party headed by Ayad Allawi. Sadr will maximize his movement’s influence as Iraq reintegrates itself into the region and how he handles the tension between the U.S. and Iran will be critical to Iraq’s post-war revival.

4. Syrian Social Nationalist Party (SSNP) – Syria

To be clear, the SSNP is part of the “tolerated opposition” permitted to operate in Syria at the behest of the Baathist regime. Having been banned since the 1955 assassination of an army officer, the SSNP is one of the oldest ideological competitors to Syria’s ruling Baath party was legalized prior to the civil war. Its militia, the Eagles of the Whirlwind, has been fighting on the side of the Assad regime on various fronts around the country. Staunchly secular and favored by sectarian minorities, the SSNP has forged a close relationship with Russia (its fighters recently received medals from the Russian military) and its political figures regularly make trips to Moscow. Despite recent assertions that it is scaling down its mission, Russia is looking to maintain a long-term military presence in the country, and the SSNP will become one of its main allies. The party’s leader, Ali Haidar, is the Syrian State Minister for Reconciliation is frequently featured in the Western press and recently touched on the negotiations in Geneva and Astana, “We’ve moved from the idea of replacing one team with another to a partnership concept to produce a new political structure.” However, the SSNP is heavily factionalized, with three known factions in existence. How this new regime structure might include the SSNP, remains to be seen. But having played a leading role in establishing the “de-escalation” zones and negotiating the localized cease-fires with certain rebel factions, the SSNP will be extremely useful for the regime in reestablishing its power in Syria. In 2018, the party will also be sure to flex its ultra-nationalist credentials as a voice within the regime camp for maintaining Syria’s territorial integrity in the face of Kurdish autonomy.

5. Patriot Union of Kurdistan (PUK) – Iraq

The passing of longtime leader Jalal Talabani in October sets the stage for the renewal of the PUK, a left-wing party that split from the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) in the mid-1970s. With Baghdad and Erbil still not on speaking terms after the botched independence referendum, the PUK will be restructuring its leadership at the party’s 4th congress next year. From the party’s stronghold in Sulaymaniyah, the late Talabani’s wife, Hero Ibrahim Ahmed, is still a dominant force within the party and has been in talks with the reformist Gorran movement. Allegations that the PUK negotiated a quiet withdrawal of their forces ahead of Baghdad’s dramatic capture of the oil-rich city of Kirkuk and other territories remains a bitter source of tension between the PUK and the KDP. The party also has a close relationship with Iran and will use this friendship to repair relations with Baghdad. How the PUK navigates to Iraqi Kurdistan’s post-independence political landscape and positions itself as a facilitator for oil pipelines will make it crucial to Iran’s plans for the future of Kirkuk’s oil resources. As Iraq’s Kurdish region grapples with widespread protests and anger at corruption, the PUK will capitalize on the KDP’s misfortunes, curtail dissent, and work with Baghdad to end Iraqi Kurdistan’s isolation.

6. Israeli Labor Party – Israel

It is no secret that the Israeli left has floundered for a way to unseat Likud’s maverick politician and current Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The electoral alliance (called the Zionist Union) between former Labor head Isaac Herzog and Hatnuah Party leader Tzipi Livni failed to take back control of the Knesset in March 2015. Since then, the fear on Israel’s political left is that Likud is moving Israel towards the so-called One State Solution and undermining Israel’s secular and liberal character by enabling the rise of far-right religious parties. But last July, Avi Gabbay took the Labor Party by storm, unseating Herzog, and adopting a more business friendly platform for the center-left party. But his rhetoric may risk alienating the left wing of the party along with Israeli Arabs. As a result, 2018 could see Labor undergo a dramatic transformation in a bid to win centrist and undecided voters. But not everyone is happy with Labor’s new leadership. MK Manuel Trajtenberg and MK Erel Margalit were both angling for the top spot and resigned. Others are discouraged by Gabbay’s religious outlook. Netanyahu, who is under multiple investigations, is facing a high likelihood of indictment, and early elections (currently scheduled for November 2019) may present a new opportunity for Labor in 2018.  The changing nature of the Israeli Labor Party will be another nail in the coffin of the two-state solution.

7. Democratic Union Party (PYD) – Syria

In just a period of a few years, the Kurdish PYD went from being heavily repressed by the Baathist regime to enjoying the diplomatic and military backing of the United States. Its militia, the YPG (People’s Protection Units) makes up the leading force of the Syrian Democratic Forces coalition and have established their own zone of control stretching along the east side of the Euphrates River. Ideologically tied to the imprisoned Abdullah Öcalan and his theory of “democratic confederalism,” the PYD has long been charged with being linked to the PKK, the Kurdish militant group deemed to be a terrorist organization by Turkey. The feminist orientation of the movement helped bring about the cause célèbre for women suffering under the harsh rule of the Islamic State, making the PYD (and subsequently the YPG) a favorite actor on the ground for military and financial support from Western governments. While Damascus has repeatedly vowed to recapture all of Syria’s territory, it has also expressed willingness to negotiation a limited amount of autonomy to Syria’s Kurds. The Kurds are now moving forward by staging local elections and building relationship with Russia. The PYD will balance relations with the regime, Russia, and the United States all while undertaking administration over the territory (and oil fields) they control. With the Pentagon promising to hunker down in Syria for the long term, the U.S. will likely renege on its plans to end arms transfers to the Kurds the PYD will be confident in its ability to ward off both Assad’s forces and the Turks.

8. Future Movement – Lebanon

It seems like an eternity ago when Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri stood next to President Trump in the Rose Garden at the White House with the U.S. president declaring that Hariri was standing up to the Iranian-backed Hezbollah movement. The shocking exit, exile, return, and reinstatement of Hariri marked a flurry of diplomatic intrigue between Lebanon’s main pro-Western party and Saudi Arabia. The drama brought about much speculation, including the supposed erosion of Saudi influence in the country. Hariri, for now, has put to rest rumors that his brother was preparing to assume control over the party. The Future Movement’s opponents in the former pro-Syrian March 8th bloc have steadily made significant gains in Lebanon’s power structure, most notably with Hezbollah leading the successful military operations against the Islamic State forces along the border. The increasing crackdown on the Syrian refugees will be a point of contention within the Lebanese political sphere as well. Internal rivalries within the pro-West March 14th alliance have spilled out into the open before and will do so again. Other figures have been emerging as potential power brokers within the Sunni community, such as former Justice Minister Ashraf Rifi, a former Hariri ally. Voices within the pro-West camp, have expressed pessimism ahead of the elections. Hariri and the Future Movement will have a difficult time navigating the upcoming Lebanese parliamentary elections in May 2018, the growing loss of support from Lebanon’s Sunnis, and the scope of the party’s financial hardships will become apparent. The ability of Saudi Arabia to exercise caution and maintain political support for the party will be critical for the U.S. and Europe’s influence in Lebanon.

9. Good Party – Turkey

2017 has been a good year for Turkish President Recip Tayyip Erdogan. He has steadily cemented his grip on the country, arresting thousands of political opponents, military officials, civil servants, and journalists in the wake of a failed coup in July 2016. His referendum boosted his presidential powers and the AKP remains predominantly in control of the Turkish media and security services. However, in late October, the announcement of the Iyi Parti, or the Good Party, looks set to take advantage of Turkey’s underlying economic and political problems. The new party’s leader, Meral Aksener, is Turkey’s former interior minister and helped lead the charge against Erdogan’s referendum. She uses a mix of mild-nationalist rhetoric and optimism in order to reach various segments of Turkish society. Aksener is aiming to form a coalition of secular nationalists, liberals, and moderate conservatives to take hold of Turkey’s political center. Rather than completely overhaul the country’s politics, she mainly speaks of restoring the rule of law. Following the launch of the party, 5 members of parliament have joined. Erdogan has been purging AKP officials and the large urban centers that were once his power base, voted largely against his referendum. Aksener would like to restore strong ties with the West and is also attracting women and youth to her party. This strategy will peel away AKP voters and build a formidable opposition within the two years before the November 2019 elections.  However, Aksener also said snap elections could be held as early as July 2018 and her party is exploring alliances. The Good Party will also seek to maximize large scale protests that would likely occur in 2018 as dissatisfaction with the government crackdown grows.

10. Fatah – The Palestinian Territories

Fatah, the old, left-wing nationalist party of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, dominants the Palestinian Authority (PA)-administered areas in the occupied West Bank. 2017 was a difficult year for the party even before the Trump Administration’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital or Israel and subsequently pledged to move the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to the ancient holy city. Questions surrounding Mahmoud Abbas’ health, Fatah’s leadership succession, and the PA’s failure to hold elections since 2005 have been looming. One interesting development was the reconciliation between Fatah and its long-time rival, Hamas, which runs the Gaza Strip. After several failed unity bids, the two sides remarkably agreed to allow Fatah to return to Gaza in an administrative capacity, with Hamas maintaining control over security. How Fatah and Hamas will implement this and move forward with joint-control over Gaza will be watched warily by Israel and the U.S. These signs point to a steady drift of the PA away from Washington, trouble which began over a spat involving threats to close the Palestinians’ office in DC. The main challenge for the Israeli-Palestinian relations will be Abbas’ next moves on Jerusalem. For a while, it appeared the Palestinians, with the help of Jordan, would prevent the new U.S. administration from taking the dramatic step. A violent and costly intifada (uprising) with Israel is the last thing the PA needs. Continued clashes with Israeli security forces and Palestinian youth will hamper the West Bank’s economy. Other political rivals, such as Mohammad Dahlan, the former Fatah security chief that ran Gaza, will be looking for ways to exploit domestic tensions and directly challenge Abbas. The Palestinian leadership will meet in mid-January with plans to adopt a new strategy aimed at pressuring Israel over Jerusalem. Now, Fatah will feel its way forward, turning back to Arab partners, possibly shunning the U.S. for a time, and further explore a budding friendship with Russia.





About Author

Chris Solomon

Chris Solomon is a Middle East Analyst and works for a U.S. defense consultancy in the Washington DC Metro Area. He has presented at the University of Maryland’s School of Public Policy, on the U.S. strategy to combat ISIL. Chris’ writing has also appeared on NATO's Atlantic Treaty Association, Raddington Report, Small Wars Journal, and Syria Comment. He holds an MA in International Affairs from the University of Pittsburgh’s Graduate School of Public and International Affairs (GSPIA). You can follow Chris on Twitter @Solomon_Chris