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The Middle East and North Africa's Evolving Landscape

Posted: 03/28/11 09:55 AM ET

When the process of political change began in the Middle East and North Africa in January 2011, there was much hope among its people and concern among its governments about the manner in which this change would evolve. For most of its people, there was tremendous hope that the decades of enduring repression under authoritarian governments would soon come to an end. For many of its governments, there was hope that the introduction of incremental reform would placate public sentiment and enable continuation of the status quo. It appears that the aspirations of neither are coming true.

While citizens in Egypt and Tunisia had initial cause for celebration when Presidents Ben Ali and Mubarak were forced to abdicate their presidencies, it quickly became clear that their jubilation was premature. While the figurehead of the only government many of them had ever known was indeed removed, the infrastructure of the government, and virtually of its other members, remained in place.

In Egypt, the Constitution did not even permit democratic elections to occur. While Egypt this past week took a step in the direction of holding future democratic elections by completing a referendum on the subject, and while a version of democratic state-building was approved, many would argue this did not go nearly far enough, since what was really required was a complete overhaul of the electoral system, rather than the 'facelift' that resulted. So Egyptians appear to have settled for the easy way out -- get the process underway and presume that what replaces the current government will be preferable to what exists today. Is that really what all those Egyptians fought and died for?

The sad fact is that every one of the states that are now experiencing political change in the region continue to stare at the edge of an abyss. The future is entirely unclear, making policymaking towards these countries complicated and subject to constant shifts in position, support or criticism. No one really knows if what will replace today's government will in fact be preferable to what they had to begin with.

It is a huge leap of faith, in our view, to presume that to be the case. Now that numerous forces from across the spectrum have been introduced into the political process, it is just as possible that what will emerge after the dust has settled are either governments that are incapable of governing because of their attempt to placate and include all the various elements of the political process, or are radicalized by the participation of extreme forces in the process, ending up with the polar opposite of what existed before. We do not believe that is what the majority of the region's people ultimately want.

While it appears likelier that what will evolve in the end in most of these states is a Turkish approach to democracy -- wherein the most important players in the political process have a seat at the table and the military has an important role to play under a veneer of democracy - it is certainly possible, and even probable, perhaps, that in some states Muslim Brotherhood-esque political movements will gather steam and prevail. It is too soon to say which states may end up this way, but it would not be entirely surprising if extreme religious parties do well in the polls in Egypt and Bahrain, for example. In Egypt, the Brotherhood won 20 percent of the votes in the Presidential 2005 election before being banned, and in Bahrain, it is hard to imagine that the current government will be able to survive long-term unless through force and attempts to implement divide and rule. Given the Shia majority there, the Saudi-assisted crackdown, the increasing influence of Iran, the end game does not look good for the status quo long-term.

The turn of events in Libya can be viewed as a template for the future in a variety of states where the existing leaders choose to fight wholesale change. What is intriguing about Libya is that NATO has come to the aid of the rebels without really knowing who they are; they only appear to know what they stand for. News over the weekend that Al Qaeda may have either infiltrated or been invited to participate in the rebellion, and that stinger anti-aircraft missiles may have been stolen from the Libyan military by the rebels, does not bode well for regional aircraft security, if this is true.

In spite of recent success by the Libyan rebels -- the result of NATO airstrikes against the Libyan military -- NATO's response may have come too late to have a reasonable chance of ousting Gadhafi, particularly in the absence of committing ground troops. NATO's intervention smacks of pure politicization, leaving the impression that states who either are or have been enemies of the West, and happen to have oil, get NATO's full attention, while states that are 'on side' with the West and do not have oil must fend for themselves. This certainly raises eyebrows when considering the West's mantra of promoting freedom and human rights wherever and whenever it may be possible, and serves to demonstrate that realpolitik is alive and well in 2011.

What all this implies is that political change in MENA will continue to be a messy, imprecise, and painful affair wherein much blood will be spilled in the future and the aspirations of millions who simply want a better life for their children will probably find their dreams quashed by the power grab that will ensue. It was of course inevitable that a spark would lead to aflame in MENA, and that radical political change would result, but one would have hoped that in today's world of high aspirations and instant communication, the end game would look more promising.

The end game is an interesting question to ponder. How will observers and denizens alike know when this series of popular uprisings is indeed over? Does the emergence of a "New Arab Order" signal a finite end or a metamorphosis into something completely different that MENA least expects? Will non-regional actors still be playing "catch-up" one or two years from now?

As it stands now, the popular uprisings will likely eventually affect all MENA countries with either a change in leadership, a change in governing strategies, and/or a possible change in strategic alliances. The nature of the uprisings, while sharing similar attributes, are classed along secular, sectarian, and tribal lines. The tribal lines are obviously the most violent, leading to civil war-type scenarios. Sectarian eruptions are also dangerous because of the intervention of outside powers and the increasing rhetoric between the Sunni and Shiite schools of thought. Sectarian uprisings bring about radical change but invite possible participation of groups banned in the past, but they form a bridgehead for more moderate forms of Islamic democracy that will not fit in well with the regional and global security relationships forged as late as 2010. Significantly, the states in which there is a combination of sectarian and tribal interests may become the most potent venues for protests and violence.

There is also the distinction within MENA of whether states are monarchies or not. As is the case with other forms of government in the region, the monarchies are all ultimately interested in regime survival, and the protection of the elites from Morocco to Jordan to the Gulf Cooperation Council states. The Saudi intervention, along with the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait, in Bahrain demonstrates the resolve of royals to protect their own kind at any expense. The complaints of "outside" foreigners will not change the new assertiveness of monarchies to protect themselves and their own kind.

We must begin to consider how the popular uprisings will end in MENA, and what impact they may have outside of MENA -- not only regionally, but globally. Will Algeria and Mauritania be affected by regional events? What could be the impact in failed or failing states around the world, or indeed in states that are ripe for change? Countries such as Albania, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan are all likely candidates: warnings and indicators for these states should be heeded. Even Pakistan is not immune. We will likely know the answer in a matter of weeks or months, given the pace of change to date in MENA. The spark that ignited the flame in Tunisia indeed has the potential to be global in nature.

Overall, this is truly an historical moment given the immense changes that are occurring. States that are experiencing radical political change, and even those that are not, but are either participating in that change through external intervention or by virtue of their alliance with these states in the throes of change, will need to conduct new security assessments, review their military plans, and their homeland security requirements and capabilities because of shifting budgetary demands and constraints as a result of the evolving landscape. As for the map of the region, analysts should start considering the fracturing of new states and the emergence of autonomous zones. It is entirely possible, and even likely, that MENA's geopolitical map will look dramatically different in just one or two years. The same could well be true globally.

Daniel Wagner is managing director of Country Risk Solutions, a political risk consulting firm based in Connecticut (USA), and senior advisor to the PRS Group. Dr. Theodore Karasik is Adjunct Lecturer at the Dubai School of Government.

 

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