Home | About | Documents | Previous Editions |Search |

Edition 17 Volume 10 - May 10, 2012

The Arab revolutions: strategic assessment IV

Whether 'Arab spring' or fundamentalist winter, the Arab world is changing  - Hamid Alkifaey
Many Iraqis see no need for a new uprising.

Israel: Dangers and missed opportunities  - Yossi Alpher
Remarkably, had he so desired, Netanyahu could have moved toward early elections without the Arab revolutions constituting a major issue.

Resizing America's role  - Daniel C. Kurtzer
External leverage on the direction and scope of change in the region is surprisingly limited.

Libya's rebels, without a cause  - Nicolas Pelham
In a country awash with weapons, a lack of momentum has left the center without authority.

Whether 'Arab spring' or fundamentalist winter, the Arab world is changing
 Hamid Alkifaey

It's been 18 months since the advent of the "Arab spring", which began in Tunisia in December 2010. The wave has claimed four regimes so far. Two of them, the Tunisian and Egyptian regimes, fell within a few months, while the third and fourth, the Libyan and Yemeni, took more time and some outside interference to let go: NATO air strikes in the case of Libya and the Gulf Cooperation Council diplomatic initiative to persuade veteran Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh to hand over power to his deputy.

The fifth regime, the hereditary North Korean-style regime of Bashar Assad in Syria, has managed to survive so far due to support from Iran, Russia and China alongside inadequate western support for the opposition. In addition, the Syrian regime does enjoy some support among certain sectors of Syrian society, especially among the Alawites, Christians, Druze and a large section of the Sunni middle and upper classes who have benefited from the regime. Many Syrians, frightened of the would-be alternative to the regime--widely believed to be the ultra-orthodox Muslim Brotherhood--have also refrained from supporting the opposition. Some of them may actively be supporting the regime, which relies on an organized and largely loyal army and police force, as well as a disciplined Baath party. These factors have all contributed to the regime's ability to suppress the armed opposition, which is believed to have been supported by members of international armed groups such as al-Qaeda.

The spread of the Arab spring in other countries such as Oman, Bahrain and Iraq has been short-lived. In Oman, the pragmatic and tolerant Sultan introduced urgent reforms that contained the protests (which were the first of their kind in the Gulf region). In Bahrain, regime forces supported by the Saudi "Peninsula Armor Force" were able to crush the civilian unrest (even though it still persists, rather peacefully, in one way or another).

In Iraq, disaffected and angry citizens, heartened by protests in other Arab countries, organized a strong protest movement, but Iraq's religious and sectarian make-up was an impediment to its continuity. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki was able to garner support from religious circles and enlist the support of the young but strong cleric, Muqtada as-Sadr, who advised his followers a year ago to exercise restraint. Al-Maliki also used several tactics that had been adopted for ostensible security reasons, but protesters say they were aimed at restricting their movements. The measures included curfews and road closures that made it difficult for protesters to reach Liberation Square, the centre of the protest movement. But it was the religious leaders who actually fixed the problem for al-Maliki. They asked their followers to be patient and give the government a chance. This aside, many people in Iraq do believe that change has actually taken place since the dictator Saddam Hussein was toppled in the US invasion in April 2003. They see no need for a new uprising. With rising oil prices, American support, and relative economic openness, trade liberalization and freedom of expression, Iraqi society is becoming increasingly affluent, and many people hope that with more time, the quasi-democratic process that has been underway since 2005 will increasingly produce efficient and competent government.

Although political instability has engulfed the Arab world since the beginning of the Arab spring, the Arab League managed at the end of March to organize a summit, hosted by Iraq. The summit was low-key, with only 10 out of the 22 heads of states attending. But it has given moral and political support to Prime Minister al-Maliki, who is experiencing many difficulties at home with his coalition partners. Sunni Vice President Tarik al-Hashimi has been accused of organizing terrorist acts against the state. He fled the capital, Baghdad, and took refuge in Erbil, the capital of the Kurdish Regional Government, before leaving for Turkey where he resides at the moment. This issue, along with others such as the KRG's production and sale of oil without the approval of the central government, has made relations between the center and KRG very tense. KRG President Massoud Barzani has even threatened to declare independence if al-Maliki doesn't change his "dictatorial" ways.

What made things even worse for al-Maliki was that five parliamentary bloc leaders (including one of his allies, Muqtada as-Sadr), as well as his rivals, parliament Speaker Usama Nujaifi, Iraqia leader Ayad Allawi, President Jalal Talabani and Barzani, met recently in Erbil to discuss the current crisis. They issued an ultimatum to al-Maliki, giving him 15 days to implement the Erbil Accords or face a no-confidence vote in parliament. The Erbil Accords were signed late in 2010 by Maliki, Barzani and Allawi, and laid the basis for the current "National Partnership Government". Al-Maliki's partners in the Iraqia bloc accuse him of reneging on the accord, while he says he has fulfilled his side of the bargain.

Despite all the above, the current Iraqi regime seems to be stable since it enjoys the support of the Americans, who first set it up in 2003 after toppling the previous regime militarily, and also the support of Washington's rivals, the Iranians, who saw their long-time Shiite allies come to power. In the wider Arab world, the Arab spring is still roaring along, even though it has claimed four victims and the fifth is fighting for its life. The new climate may not lead to additional regime downfalls, but it will certainly result in more reforms in all Arab countries, even the stable and prosperous ones. The Arab masses, having seen the fruits of their uprisings, will not sit silent in the future.

One thing both the world and Arab masses will have to contend with is the rise of Islamic fundamentalism by democratic means. This phenomenon, one that was not actually instrumental in bringing about the Arab spring, has emerged to reap its fruits and dominate the lives of the people. But, this is a story for another time.-Published 10/5/2012 © bitterlemons-international.org

Hamid Alkifaey is a writer and journalist. He was the first government spokesman of post-Saddam Hussein Iraq and founder-leader of the Movement for Democratic Society. Currently, he is researching democratization at the University of Exeter in the UK.

Israel: Dangers and missed opportunities
 Yossi Alpher

The Arab revolutions are an internal Arab and Islamic phenomenon. For once, Israel is not being blamed by any side for what is happening in the Arab world. Still, the unfolding events of the "Arab spring" have potentially dramatic ramifications for Israel.

Wisely, the government of Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has avoided any involvement in neighboring revolutions. Less wisely, it has also chosen to interpret the revolutionary events around us as a mandate--or an excuse--to avoid any pro-active initiative toward our Palestinian neighbors, ostensibly lest we do business with leaders who won't survive or be able to honor their commitments. The result is liable to leave Israel with little if any diplomatic leverage for managing its relations--or for attempts to establish relations--with increasingly Islamist neighbors.

Egypt and Jordan offer useful lessons. The Muslim Brotherhood with its close link to Hamas in Gaza is ascending to at least a share of power in Cairo, even as the Egyptian army's grip on the Sinai Peninsula and its Bedouin population declines. Were Israel to recognize that it has no viable strategy for Gaza and seek to enter into some sort of stable ceasefire relationship with Hamas, it might be better positioned to deal with the emerging threats to both the Egypt-Israel peace relationship and the stability of the Negev-Sinai border.

In Jordan there is no revolution, but there are multiple Islamist and economic challenges to the Hashemite monarchy. Israel has a huge strategic interest in the stability of that monarchy as a bulwark against extremist tendencies in Iraq and Syria and among the Palestinians. Without a dynamic Israeli-Palestinian peace process that focuses at least on the future of the West Bank, King Abdullah II's domestic position is weakened. But the only dynamic action Netanyahu is taking regarding the West Bank is to build settlements there.

In contrast, regarding Syria the Israeli stand-off approach is sound. Israel is damned with President Bashar Assad and his Iranian and Hizballah friends, and is almost certain to be damned without them, assuming as we must that Assad's downfall would mean heavy Muslim Brotherhood influence in Syria, too, and possibly the emergence of a hostile Turkish-Syrian alliance. Drawing on past experience when Israel meddled abortively with the balance of forces among its neighbors, the worst thing Jerusalem could do in Syria is to take sides. Netanyahu appears to understand this.

The response of Arab monarchies to Arab revolution offers a very different set of lessons and opportunities for Israel. The Saudis and Qataris, the two Wahabi Arab states, have invested their fortunes and their energies in securing the monarchies against revolution and combating perceived Iranian inroads and interests in the midst of revolution in Bahrain, Yemen and Syria. This points to a potential intersection between the Arab spring and the drive to rebuff Iran's hegemonic drive, and even to a confluence of interests between Saudi Arabia and Israel (and for that matter between Turkey and Israel)--if only Israel could at least evince an interest in putting its Palestinian affairs in some semblance of order.

There remains the American factor, and to a lesser extent the role of Europe and Russia, in Israel's thinking about and response to the Arab revolutions. The West is happy with Israel's avoidance of interference, but not with its abstinence from the peace process. Meanwhile, with US presidential elections looming in November, and in view of the ongoing trauma that the Arab revolutions are visiting not only on Arabs and Israel but on the West and Russia as well, we are not likely to witness any serious attempt by any of them to devise a new strategy for the Middle East before 2013.

Remarkably, had he so desired, Netanyahu could have moved toward early Israeli elections without the Arab revolutions constituting a major issue of controversy in Israeli politics.-Published 10/5/2012 © bitterlemons-international.org

Yossi Alpher is coeditor of the bitterlemons.net family of internet publications. He is former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University.

Resizing America's role
 Daniel C. Kurtzer

"Revolutions revolve 360 degrees," wrote the late Middle East economic historian Charles Issawi. What we didn't know yesterday about Middle East revolutions--and we didn't know a great deal--becomes less relevant as the days fly by, for these revolutions, like all others that preceded them, are works in progress, changing constantly.

For the United States, the past 12 months have been characterized by consternation and some confusion. Comfortable verities and reliable partners of the past 30 years have given way to new power elites and growing instability. The United States is surely not alone in its uncertainty about the direction of regional politics and what to do; but for the United States the stakes are higher than for any other extra-regional power.

In some respects, the eruption of revolutions in 2011 was unsurprising in view of the long-term changes that were underway and in evidence in the region. During the past decade, the dominant role of the United States eroded as a consequence of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars and the failure of US leadership in the peace process. No single player replaced the Americans; rather, the region became a multi-player arena, comprising the European Union, Russia and China as well.

As the extra-regional line-up was changing, so too was the distribution of power within the region. Regional Arab power has been on the wane for a long time, and in the past decade this decline reached rock bottom. What Cairo, Damascus and Baghdad did meant far less than what Jerusalem, Ankara and Tehran did. While Turkey's no-enemies policy, Israel's alliance with the periphery and Tehran's regional power pretensions have not quite materialized as envisioned, these non-Arab states proved to be far more influential in the Arab Middle East than the Arabs themselves.

Another evolving change was the replacement of Arab state power with the power and influence of non-state actors such as Hizballah and Hamas. Since 1973, Israel-Arab wars have essentially been wars between Israel and a non-state actor. This decline of Arab state power was accompanied, perhaps stimulated to some extent, by a fundamental change in the defining ideology of the region, from secular Arab nationalism to political Islam, or "from Nasser to Nasrallah".

To be sure, as consequential as these macro changes were, they did little to stimulate the cosmic upheavals of the past year. Longstanding crises of authoritarian rule, corruption, economic and social inequalities and aging, lifeless, sclerotic leaders created conditions ripe for revolution. The internal pressure cookers heated up, and ultimately some of them exploded.

External leverage on the direction and scope of change in the region is surprisingly limited. The immediate economic needs of Egypt and the immediate governance needs of Libya are great, but the United States and Europe are distrusted. Newly empowered elites such as the Islamists in Egypt are flexing muscles, as evidenced in the NGO crisis in Egypt. Middle Easterners seem to have decided that they will determine their own future.

The sooner Washington and other capitals realize this, the better able they will be to step aside, rethink what their real interests are in this region and adjust policies accordingly. For example, the US diplomatic and military "footprint" is way too large and needs to be downsized considerably. The security of energy exports remains important to the United States, but it should be important to others as well, and thus burden-sharing should replace US unilateralism. An overhaul of US policy is called for and is in the interests of both the Americans and regional actors.

Even as this resizing of America's role and presence takes shape, the US and others will not be able fully to escape at least four pressing policy challenges:

  • Syria: indecision, no decision, or decision not to decide. The situation there could be heading towards chronic crisis, that is, persistent internal instability in which the regime stays in power but faces an ongoing opposition. Outside military intervention looks increasingly problematic and unlikely.
  • Iran. The protestations of Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak to the contrary, it appears that coercive diplomacy is game on for the foreseeable future. If the United States can be assured of no paradigm shift in the Iranian program before the November elections--i.e., a shift that could force a decision on the use of force--then real diplomacy can be given a chance in 2013.
  • Middle East peace process. Yes, the peace process, the problem that so many people try to wish away. But it won't go away, and it also won't be fixed by a status quo that allows both sides to take unilateral steps that worsen the situation--namely, settlements and internationalization of the legal issues. One can but hope that a second-term American administration will develop a serious strategy backed by the same determination that in the past has made American diplomacy formidable.
  • Western fatigue with the Middle East. The fact that these problems are so daunting but appear to have no answers feeds into a western attitude of tiredness and anger. Given their druthers, western leaders would prefer just to watch the Middle East go away.
As much as it is in the interest of the United States and Europe for the Middle East revolutions to succeed and result in liberal democracies, outside powers will not determine this outcome. Smart policies elsewhere, especially in the search for Middle East peace, can contribute to the outcome sought.-Published 10/5/2012 bitterlemons-international.org

Daniel C. Kurtzer, former US ambassador to Egypt (1997-2001) and to Israel (2001-2005), holds the S. Daniel Abraham Chair in Middle East Policy Studies at Princeton University's Woodrow Wilson School.

Libya's rebels, without a cause
 Nicolas Pelham

Like a cad on a one-night stand, NATO and its associates bombed Muammar Gaddafi's regime away, and with a wham-bam-thank-you-ma'am gave scarcely a thought to the aftermath and the prospect of an aborted state. Initially, the Libyans who succeeded the toppled tyrant were pleased. The state was theirs to fashion with little overt external interference. But as insecurity spreads and allegations of gross financial mismanagement mount, many Libyans are wondering whether they are up to the job.

Part of the problem is the constitutional process. The lack of transparency in the country's highest authority in post-Gaddafi Libya, the National Transitional Council, hampers the council's interaction with its public, and undermines its legitimacy. (It is constantly adding new members--there were 86 at last count, but no one seems to have a list.) The council's appointment of short-term governments ensures that the cabinets are lame ducks as soon as they take office. The current prime minister, Abdulrahim al-Keib, compounded this insecurity by setting a single target for his government--elections--and leaving reconstruction to his successors.

In a country awash with weapons, the lack of momentum has left the center dangerously devoid of tools and authority for establishing itself. Militias formed during the revolution to fight Gaddafi's forces claim ownership of the revolution, and accuse the government composed of technocrats and exiles of stealing its spoils. New militias surfaced in Gaddafi's former garrison towns in the center armed with hundreds of tanks and questionable commitments to the new order. In the absence of a state criminal justice system, these groups rounded up 5,000 prisoners, and held them without trial. The approach of the July 19 election date has hastened the militias' resolve to carve out their prerogatives before an incoming government achieves a mandate based on the ballot box, not their revolutionary zeal.

Critically, the authorities failed to regulate the relationship between the old order and the new. The new government's efforts to avoid the pitfalls of the US invasion of Iraq and its deBaathification program, which stripped the state of its fabric, have come under sustained attack from the rogue militias anxious to press their claim to state jobs and revenues. Government reluctance has been met with violence. Amid allegations of mass fraud, the government severely limited paid medical trips abroad for the war wounded, and cancelled one-off payments to rebels after at least 20 times as many would-be recipients registered as the number of fighters. On May 8, militiamen attempted to storm the prime minister's office by firing mortars at it. A hastily-constructed demobilization program for militiamen has projected the same tensions inside the new security forces.

With the lid of the old regime blown away, a plethora of simmering ethnic and racial tensions suppressed by Gaddafi's policy of Arabization have burst into the open. In southern towns, long-standing tensions between Arab tribes and Black Toubou tribes over control of the smuggling routes into the Sahel degenerated into street fighting at a cost of hundreds of lives. Amazigh, or Berber, revivalists based in the coastal town of Zwara fought Arabs in neighboring Reqdaline for control of the Tunisian border. Graffiti promoting ethnic cleansing scars town walls. The goodwill that sustains support for the NTC in Tripoli has largely evaporated in Benghazi, which has precious little to show for engineering the revolt in February 2011, particularly since the leadership moved to Tripoli and is feeding separatist or anarchic tendencies.

Belatedly, the attacks have stirred the new authorities to assert their presence. Government forces hastily cobbled together constructed a buffer in both the West and South, maintaining ceasefires that have more or less held. But it remains unclear whether the forces' numbers are sufficient to prevent the cultural battles spreading across Libya, or into neighboring states. Rebels without a cause have travelled from the coast to join the fray, heightening tensions. Flush with Libya's weapons, the Tuareg--or desert Amazigh--have already carved out their own homeland, Azawad, in northern Mali. Gun markets have surfaced in southern Tunisia, and Sinai's Bedouin careen along mountain tracks with formerly Libyan anti-aircraft guns mounted on Nissan trucks. Libya's own turmoil could yet acquire continental proportions.

The Libyan government can still celebrate noted successes in comparison to Iraq in the wake of the US invasion. It has wrested most of the country's ports and airports back from the rebels, maintained the civil service and established the rudiments of a security force. It quickly restored utilities and oil flows, opened the airport to international flights, and hosted its first oil conferences. It has so far kept at bay the West's own jihadis, those veterans of Afghanistan and Iraq's private security companies who had come to Libya seeking rich pickings. And elections, if they happen, may yet provide the panacea to win popular backing for the new order and legitimize civilians at the expense of the militiamen, who unfettered will create havoc. But with such riches to distribute amongst such a small population, the vultures are many. Standing up a central authority will require greater resolve, inclusion and transparency than the would-be authorities have displayed to date.-Published 10/5/2012 © bitterlemons-international.org

Nicolas Pelham is The Economist's correspondent in Jerusalem and has recently returned from Libya, from which he has reported extensively.

Notice Board