In general, 2020 has not been gentle to humankind. It visited one calamity after the other on our region and the world, and no country was spared severe political and economic pains. Nevertheless, the year has evidently decided not to leave without bequeathing three breakthroughs in three major crises.
The first is the Covid-19 pandemic that struck at the outset of this year and dominated public behaviour inside nations and relations between them. Everything that was not immediately connected to the pandemic was either put on hold or shunted to the fringes of media and public attention. Covid-19, a contagious disease caused by a recently discovered strain of corona viruses, took the world by surprise. Scientists had had no knowledge of its existence before it first spread in Wuhan, China, in December 2019.
By December 2020, there were more than 72 million reported infections worldwide and more than 1.6 million Covid-related deaths in 220 countries and political entities. It was what they call a compound crisis: a massive public health crisis that precipitated economic and social crises because precautionary measures kept people from work, slowed or halted production, sharply reduced incomes or cut off incomes entirely due to layoffs and unemployment, kept people apart and even isolated entire neighbourhoods or larger areas. People had to contend with some of the most painful choices and situations, some spiritual, others more material, as loved ones succumbed to the illness or passed away.
It was a mysterious crisis. It had scientists and decision-makers flummoxed as they scrambled to conduct research, amass data and identify the best remedies for dealing with this multifaceted crisis that began to look insurmountable. They were under enormous pressure, and one of their first dilemmas was the time factor. People’s patience was running out; they wanted to return to “normal” ASAP.
The search for a vaccine was fast-tracked like no medical research project before it, because of its massive toll on public healthcare systems and the global economy. As geopolitical currents grew increasingly fraught, governments, medical firms, university laboratories and other institutions accelerated their efforts to come up with a vaccine and to work out how to overcome the challenges of how to produce and distribute sufficient amounts for the billions who need to be inoculated. At last, a vaccine was approved this month. It has now entered the processes of mass manufacturing and worldwide distribution, heralding much needed relief after such a gruelling ordeal.
The second crisis had to do with a world order adrift when the US abandoned the helm to immerse itself in an electoral season that riveted global attention. 2020 was the year of American elections in which Trump and Biden faced off after winning the primaries of their respective parties. Three deepening domestic crises — mounting Covid-19 infection and death rates, economic deterioration due to the pandemic and widespread protests against police killings of Black Americans — offered Trump an opportunity to put a positive stamp on the end of his first term by acting as a president for all Americans and unifying citizens from across the political spectrum in the face of such crises.
Instead, at virtually every critical juncture, he remained true to this trademark divisiveness, as he refused to heed the advice of scientists and advisers and derided anyone who dared to differ. In this highly charged political climate, voters turned out to the polls as never before. The 2020 elections recorded an approximately 70 per cent turnout rate of eligible voters, the highest ever. Joe Biden won with more than 82 million votes. Yet, Trump received more than 76 million, or about eight million more votes than in 2016.
Trump has refused to acknowledge defeat. But despite his repeated claims of “widespread fraud” and despite some political tussles, the handover process to President-elect Biden is going ahead. For other countries, this means that the leader of the world order has a face again. They can study it, analyse its outlooks and intents, and calibrate how to speak and negotiate with it.
The Middle East’s fateful crisis began a decade ago. When the pandemic struck, it compounded the pains. Nevertheless, 2020 brought three types of inroads that combine to herald a more promising decade ahead for this region with hope for the types of changes needed in order to catch up with modernity. First, after a long period of instability in many Arab countries, the region has managed to grapple with some crucial issues and steer conditions towards calm in a number of conflict-ridden countries.
In Libya, in Syria and even in Yemen, a blend of diplomacy, shifts in power balances and sheer combat weariness propelled towards a reduction in violence and the earnest search for a solution. Otherwise put, the countries of the first wave of the so-called Arab Spring exhausted their energy for violence and started to search for a way out of their dilemmas. As for the second wave, that began in 2019, by the end of 2020 they have grasped many lessons.
The second regional breakthrough took the form of the historic agreements signed between Israel and the UAE and Bahrain at the White House. These bilateral agreements formalised the normalisation of relations between Israel and these two Gulf countries, a process that is consistent with their shared opposition to Iran. The three countries also signed a document called the Abraham Accords Declaration, which consists of some general symbolic statements of intention to support diplomacy, cooperation and regional peace.
Initiating the formal normalisation process, they signed bilateral agreements covering 15 areas of mutual concern, such as investment, trade, aviation, energy, communications, health, agriculture and water. Soon afterwards, Sudan also agreed to normalise relations with Israel. Then, in another parting gesture before its farewell, 2020 brought the normalisation agreement between Israel and Morocco on 9 December.
Thirdly, despite the pandemic and economic straits, the reformist current has not only succeeded in managing the pandemic in terms of containing its spread and its detrimental impacts, especially after the decline in oil prices, it also succeeded in demonstrating its resilience and persistence in the pursuit of reform, sometimes recording positive growth rates.
The foregoing breakthroughs and inroads have opened many doors not just for the forthcoming year but for the whole of the forthcoming decade. One lesson to be learned is that no country can confront global problems on its own. It will always need to work together with the international community. Another lesson is that there are limits to human progress and to humankind’s ability to control nature.
Therefore, more concerted efforts are of the essence for the sake of the health of the planet. The third lesson is that while national interests take priority in shaping a country’s foreign relations, it was essential to subject many policies and outlooks to a process of introspection and revision because of how they had made this region the exception to the universal flow towards progress. Persistence in the pursuit and expansion of reform, in both the state and in the region as a whole, will make the realisation of peace, progress and prosperity possible.
*The writer is chairman of the board, CEO and director of the Regional Centre for Strategic Studies.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 17 December, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly