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 2012 will be one of the most crucial years in the Middle East's modern history.
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 this politically diverse set of nations into one group.
In Morocco, the people still have great respect for the region’s oldest monarchy, a sentiment which prevented widespread unrest from engulfing the nation this past year. The recent victory of moderate Islamist factions in parliament forced the monarchy to balance their wishes, while keeping Morocco an attractive address for foreign investment, keeping 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 Movement 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 because of any sort of respect for the military-backed government, but rather out of the fear of a repeat of the country’s bloody civil war, 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, Algerian President Abdelaziz 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 National Transitional Council 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.
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. Concerned 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-led government. If history is any indicator, such a move could very quickly spark a broader conflict, providing Hamas’ 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, it’s fears of a renewed civil war. This mutual fear has allowed the small Mediterranean state to weather one potentially 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 - Syrian President Bashar Assad’s Regime. As the conflict painstakingly progresses in Syria, 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 Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri 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 Kurds 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 steppingstone in its conquest for regional domination and as such, will never give Bahrain’s opposition the backing that it requires to achieve real change.
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, has 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.
The writer Works for Max Security Solutions, a risk consulting company based in the Middle East.