Marc Lynch

People of the Year 2009: Middle East Edition

Since editors love nothing more than end of year lists, and it beats actually thinking about anything serious, I’ve put together a selection of professional sports-style awards for the Middle East during 2009. Just don’t expect it to have much more value than all the other lists of its ilk!  Comeback player of the year: ...

TO GO WITH AFP STORY BY JOSEPH KRAUSS Palestinian prime minister Salam Fayyad speaks during an interview with AFP in the West Bank city of Ramallah on November 1, 2009. At a time when Middle East peace appears as distant as ever, Fayyad has a new strategy for statehood, one that does not rely on US-backed negotiations. AFP PHOTO/ABBAS MOMANI (Photo credit should read ABBAS MOMANI/AFP/Getty Images)

Since editors love nothing more than end of year lists, and it beats actually thinking about anything serious, I’ve put together a selection of professional sports-style awards for the Middle East during 2009. Just don’t expect it to have much more value than all the other lists of its ilk! 

Comeback player of the year: Bashar al-Asad. It’s been a surprisingly good year for the recalcitrant Syrian dictator. The Syrian economy is booming, the new Lebanese government reflects Syrian interests, international suitors are coming calling, and an American ambassador is reportedly on the way. It’s a long way from the Cedar Revolution and the Hariri tribunal days of 2005, when many analysts thought his career was over.  

Rookie of the Year: Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The Turkish Prime Minister isn’t exactly a first year leader, but he might as well be when it comes to Middle East diplomacy. In 2009 his personal popularity in the Middle East skyrocketed and Turkish diplomacy radically accelerated in the region. Erdogan’s vocal support for the Palestinians and criticisms of Gaza played exceptionally well across the region, especially when he stormed off the stage in Davos as Amr Moussa sat by and watched bemusedly. Beneath the flash, though, Erdogan has engineered a creative and aggressive outreach to all of Turkey’s neighbors — to the East and West alike — and has turned his country into a diplomatic powerhouse after decades of regional marginality.

Top Prospect: Salam al-Fayyad. It hasn’t been a good year for the Palestinian Authority. Mahmoud Abbas has lost legitimacy, and is now happily ruling without electoral mandate, while the divisions between the West Bank and Gaza deepen and hopes for negotiations fade. But Fayyad has been something of a bright spot in an otherwise lost season, as he continues to plug away at his plans for institution building from below, revitalizing the West Bank economy, and cultivating positive Western media coverage. He is probably more popular in Washington than in the West Bank, probably has as many enemies in the PLO and Fatah as he does in Gaza, and a lot of people expect that he’ll turn out to be one of those over-hyped top draft picks who never really puts up the numbers. But at least for now he’s got the buzz.

Cy Young (pitcher of the year): Yusuf al-Qaradawi. While a number of prominent Islamist figures came out hard against al-Qaeda this year — including the Saudi Salman Awdah, the Libyans, Dr. Fadl, and many others — the intervention likely to have the most long-term impact remains Qaradawi’s Fiqh al-Jihad. His careful defense of “resistance” (i.e. Hamas) and scathing denunciation of “a mad declaration of war on the entire world” (i.e. al-Qaeda) outlined a position with wide resonance across the region. He continues to be a barometer of a significant share of Arab public opinion. After years of medical problems and controversial stances, the fiery old shaykh showed he still has the stuff.

Executive of the Year: Shaykh Mohammad bin Rashid al-Maktoum. Say what you want: the ruler of Dubai has always done things big, and has Moneyball ambitions. Indoor ski slopes in the desert? You bet. Tiger Woods-branded golf course? Sure. World’s tallest skyscraper, palm shaped artificial island? Whatever. So who’s going to begrudge a total fiscal collapse as the outsized house of cards comes down hard and he has to run to Abu Dhabi to beg for help? Are we not entertained? Is that not why we are here?

Coach on the Hot Seat: Nuri al-Maliki. After surprising the critics with unexpected success last season (Basra, the SOFA, security improvements) and a good start to his sophomore campaign (provincial elections), the Iraqi Prime Minister had a rocky 2009 season. Spectacular terror attacks have chipped away at his claims to provide security, even if overall violence levels are down, and repeatedly pointing the finger at Syria and Baathists has proven unconvincing. The long political deadlock over the election law and persistent tensions between Baghdad and the KRG have cast a pall over the political process. And for all of that, grumbling over his centralization of power and allegedly autocratic style of governance continues. He has time to turn it around but, with Parliamentary elections scheduled for March 7 of next year, Maliki heads the list of regional politicians updating their resumes.

Fan Favorite:  Neda Soltan and the Iranian Green Revolutionaries.  They may not have won (at least not yet), but the courageous protests which swept Tehran after the fraudulent “victory” of Mahmoud Ahmedenejad captured the world’s attention. Neda Soltan became the international symbol of the protests, a focal point for the brave and resourceful — and seemingly largely uncoordinated — efforts of thousands upon thousands of ordinary Iranians. It’s too early to know whether they will become the Chicago Cubs of the Middle East (lovable losers who bring deep pain every year to their fans after raising their hopes) or the Boston Red Sox (who threw off a similar curse to finally win). But the game will never be the same.

Performer of the Year: Beyonce. You can sit down now, Kanye!

Defensive Player of the Year: Benjamin Netanyahu. The Israeli Prime Minister’s ability to stand up to the United States on the issue of settlements threw American Middle East policy into the trash bin, harmed Obama’s credibility across the Middle East and throughout the world, and may have squandered Israel’s last chance to achieve a lasting peace with the Palestinians and the Arab world. But he successfully defended his positions, won considerable support from the Israeli public, and for whatever reason paid little to no costs of any kind with the United States.  

Offensive Player of the Year: Richard Goldstone. He certainly offended a lot of Israelis and Americans — while galvanizing global criticism of Israel’s behavior in the Gaza war. His devastating report — badly misrepresented in the media — opened up the real prospect of prosecution for Israeli officials abroad. The American decision to pressure Mahmoud Abbas to withdraw the report backfired badly, undermining the Palestinian leader’s legitimacy and provoking a still-unresolved political crisis. Goldstone’s report had an unexpectedly large impact on so many arenas that he’s earned this award.

MVP:  Barack Obama. Love him or hate him, rally around his hopes for change or despair of his prospects, President Obama’s new administration has defined the year in the Middle East. His masterful Cairo address and broad-based outreach to the Muslim world sought to turn the page on the Bush years. His attempts to push for Israeli-Palestinian peace and to engage Iran have run into deep trouble, but his efforts have driven the diplomatic agenda in the region. He has contributed to the marginalization of al Qaeda and has overseen a thus-far mostly effective drawdown from Iraq. Obama has inspired millions in the Middle East and opened up new windows of opportunity for the United States and for the region. More and more people across the region may be growing frustrated, disappointed with the limits on his ability to change track or to deliver on his promises — but his hopes and failures, efforts to bring change and the resistance it has brought, make him the 2009 Most Valuable Player in Middle East Politics.

More pointless end of year lists coming soon! 

Marc Lynch is associate professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University, where he is the director of the Institute for Middle East Studies and of the Project on Middle East Political Science. He is also a non-resident senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security. He is the author of The Arab Uprising (March 2012, PublicAffairs).

He publishes frequently on the politics of the Middle East, with a particular focus on the Arab media and information technology, Iraq, Jordan, Egypt, and Islamist movements. Twitter: @abuaardvark