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[Dehai-WN] Middle East Online: The Middle East and North Africa in 2011: On the brink of Chaos?

From: Berhane Habtemariam <Berhane.Habtemariam_at_gmx.de_at_dehai.org>
Date: Mon, 2 Jan 2012 22:37:27 +0100

The Middle East and North Africa in 2011: On the brink of Chaos?


A sweep of the region from Morocco to Iran indicates that that 2012 will be
one of the most crucial years in the Middle East's modern history, argues
Daniel Nisman.

 First Published: 2012-01-02

The feelings of hope and opportunity initially evoked by the Arab Spring
have transformed into fear that the region may be sliding into a new status
quo of instability. A sweep of the region from Morocco to Iran indicates
that that 2012 will be one of the most crucial years in the Middle East's
modern history.

The Maghreb

While North Africa by and large experienced the most significant change from
the Arab Spring uprisings, it would be a grave mistake to place the fate of
these politically diverse set of nations into one. In Morocco, the people
still have great respect for the region's oldest monarchy, sentiment which
prevented widespread unrest from engulfing the nation this past year. The
recent victory of moderate Islamist factions in parliament forces the
monarchy to balance between their wishes, while keeping Morocco an
attractive address for foreign investment to keep the economy on its feet.
While Morocco can be expected to remain relatively stable, a widening gap
between rich and poor and growing unemployment only works to the favor of
the liberal February 20 reformers and the outlawed Islamist Justice and
Spirituality movement, which currently remain marginalized.

In Algeria, the situation is quite different. The country emerged unscathed
from the Arab Spring, not out of any sort of respect for the military-backed
government, but rather out of fears for repeat of the country's bloody civil
war which is still fresh in the minds of most of the population. While
stability prevailed in 2011, tensions are brewing beneath the surface as
Algerians come to realize that they are indeed the last nation to tolerate a
corrupt military dictatorship which has failed to provide both physical and
economic security. The success of Islamist parties to the East and West has
emboldened Algeria's own conservative opposition to demand reforms ahead of
the upcoming elections-slated for the Spring of 2012. Moreover Bouteflika's
ailing health places the military and its allies in a considerable
predicament, as replacing Bouteflika without elections will only provide
fuel to an increasingly disillusioned population. The loss of the Bouteflika
regime would spell a considerable setback in North Africa's war against Al
Qaeda, which despite recent losses- still has its sights set on fomenting
instability in Algeria.

Compared to its neighbors, Tunisia has a far less gloomy outlook. The
Tunisian people are widely supportive of the Islamist-led unity government,
which now has one year to instill confidence by improving the nation's
battered economy. With high unemployment and decreasing investment rates,
the Ennahda party certainly has its work cut out for it. Failure to improve
the economy would at worst, send the people back into the streets, and at
best, force the Ennahda party from power in next year's elections.

If only things were that simple in oil-rich Libya. The current post
revolution unrest in the country has highlighted the difficulty in applying
democracy in a country which remains divided along tribal lines. The NTC
must now balance between the demands of the various tribes which fought the
toughest battles of the revolution, sharing oil revenues and governing power
in order to ensure cooperation. While Tripoli isn't likely to become another
Mogadishu, the NTC and its newly formed military have until now been unable
to clear the streets of the capital from renegade militiamen, who remain
highly wary of the government's intentions. Ironically, the NTC may find
itself resorting to its predecessor's carrot-and-stick strategy of building
a broad alliance with willing tribes, while cracking down on those which
fail to fall in line. How and where democracy fits into Libya's recipe for
future stability remains ambiguous.

The Levant

Depending on who's asking, the situation in Egypt may be going from bad to
worse. Nearly a year after Tahrir Square became the icon of the Arab Spring,
Egypt itself has become a symbol of the West's fears of a regional slide
into radicalism. With Islamists poised to dominate the parliament for the
first time in history, a considerable power struggle has evolved between
these groups and the ruling military council over the makeup of the future
constitution and the country itself. Whichever party emerges victorious from
the power struggle will find itself tasked with the nearly insurmountable
challenge of bringing the Arab world's most populous nation back from the
brink of chaos. Outside of Cairo, lawlessness has engulfed Egypt's rural
governorates. Repeated attacks on the crucial natural gas pipeline signal
that military operations continue to fail in ridding the Sinai Peninsula
from militant activity. From Aswan Dam to the Nile Delta- sectarian strife,
clan violence, and general lawlessness have come to comprise the new
Egyptian reality. The country's disintegrating economy isn't likely to help
the situation in the cities either, as crucial public services remain on the
brink of striking while crime and poverty are on the rise.

While Prime Minister Netanyahu is enjoying one of the most stable
governments in his country's history, the reality in Israel is anything but.
The Jewish State is gearing to fight a war on multiple fronts, while 2012
may just be the year in which the world decides whether or not to live with
a nuclear Iran. Petrified from the possibility of an Islamist takeover in
neighboring Egypt, the Israeli military may take the opportunity to weaken
the Hamas regime in Gaza through a punishing military operation while it
still has an ally in the Egyptian military. If history is any indicator,
such a move could very quickly spark a broader conflict, allowing Hamas's
embattled allies in Lebanon and Syria with a perfect distraction from their
own atrocities.

If there is one thing that Lebanon's paranoid sectarian factions have in
common- its fears of a renewed civil war. This mutual fear has allowed the
small Mediterranean state to weather one potential crippling political
crisis after another. Lebanon's luck may be running out however, as it
becomes increasingly clear that the country's fate remains intertwined with
neighboring Syria. Hezbollah remains on edge, as it carefully plots its
survival in the advent of the loss of its most important benefactor- the
Assad Regime. As the conflict painstakingly progresses in Syria, President
Assad appears to have dug in for the long haul, forcing the world to choose
between his immoral dictatorship and the engulfment of the country into
sectarian chaos. Stability in Syria simply isn't on the menu, as the
increasingly violent opposition as well remains poised for to fight until it
succeeds in ousting the Assad regime.

Instability in Iraq's Sunni backyard certainly doesn't bode well for a
country which is reeling from a surge in terrorism and sectarian
decentralization in the wake of the recent US troop pullout. Whether or not
Prime Minister Al Malaki was justified in issuing an arrest warrant for his
Sunni Vice Premier, the act only served to cement the Sunni minority's fears
of marginalization in the face of the increasingly powerful Shia majority.
Following in the path of the Kurdistan to the north, various Sunni regions
in Iraq have begun to hint at regional autonomy, to which the Shia-dominated
central government has warned will spark renewed bloodshed. With Sunni
extremist groups capitalizing on their communities' growing fears- continued
terror attacks aimed at fomenting sectarian instability nearly turn
prospects of sectarian autonomy into a solution rather than a threat.

The Arabian Peninsula and the Persian Gulf

Aside from the bedlam currently engulfing Yemen and the looming Iranian
threat, the Saudi-led Arabian Peninsula provides a recluse of stability- at
least for the upcoming year. The Saudis themselves have taken the helm by
strengthening their population by solidifying its conservative ideology,
while instating economic policies which ensure that satisfaction with the
monarchy remains ample. The ongoing unrest in the oil rich Eastern Province
has proven to be nothing more than a Shia thorn in the side of the leader of
the Sunni world. The protest campaign by the often mistreated minority will
likely continue, as will the unabated deadly crackdowns by security forces.
By maintaining its tight grip on the internet and media, Saudi authorities
continue to ensure that similar tensions in neighboring Bahrain don't get
pass the King Fahd Causeway.

Despite the common perception that Bahrain's uprising has failed, the
Shia-led opposition has very much succeeded at instilling a new status quo
on the tiny gulf state. Ongoing demonstrations, roadblocks, and other acts
of civil disobedience continue to keep security forces on their heels, while
doing everything possible to ensure that it's "Business as Usual" in the
financial hub of Manama. Despite the continued discontent amongst the
island's majority Shia population, the Sunni-dominated government remains
free to act against the demonstrators, its position bolstered by the nearly
guaranteed support from the United States and Saudi Arabia. Both these
countries fear the possibility of Iran turning the small Island into a
stepping stone in its conquest for regional domination and as such, will
never give Bahrain's opposition the backing that it requires to achieve real

In addition to Bahrain, the Islamic Republic of Iran has a number of other
nations in its crosshairs which all provide an opportunity to advance its
aspirations for regional hegemony. These aspirations, combined with the
brinkmanship exhibited by the regime, continue threaten regional stability
in a very real way. Iran's insistence on acquiring nuclear weapons has put
it on a collision course with Israel and the West, the impact of which
carrying the potential to spark a full scale regional war. This threat,
combined with the probable damage to the global economy, have prompted
Iran's opponents from the Persian Gulf to the Eastern Mediterranean to
devise alternatives in the event that the region's most dangerous regime
achieves nuclear capability. The Saudis have already hinted that they too
would seek nuclear deterrence, unconvinced that the recent surge in US
weapons deals would be enough to protect their regional interests. As such,
the Iranians have presented their opponents with a no-win situation, forcing
them to choose between shattering the glass ceiling of regional stability
with a military campaign or gambling on the hopes that nuclear proliferation
in the most volatile corner of the globe would somehow not end in
apocalyptic disaster.

Nuclear apocalypse aside, the year of 2012 will prove to be a challenging
one for the greater Middle East. The recently revolutionized nations of
North Africa and the Levant are sliding into fundamentalism, fueled by oil
money from nations like Qatar and Saudi Arabia. These wealthy Gulf States
have capitalized on the political and economic vacuum left in the wake of
recent revolutions to spread their political influence by supporting
political parties and movements who adhere to their hard-line stream of
Islam. Islamist-induced stability may be just a pipedream for the embattled
nations of Syria, Yemen, and Iraq, whose sectarian nature is likely to
prevent any one ideology from gaining complete control in the absence of
another centralized dictatorship. With the West reeling from an economic
crisis, its ability to maintain its interests and ensure stability in the
world's most strategically important region will only continue to be
hampered. Indeed, those who seek stability in the Middle East are presented
with a nearly insurmountable challenge in 2012.

Daniel Nisman is an Argov Fellow for Leadership and Diplomacy at the IDC
Herzlyia. He works for Max Security Solutions, a risk consulting firm based
in the Middle East.


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Received on Mon Jan 02 2012 - 16:38:01 EST
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