By Ian Bremmer and David Gordon
The furious protests that have toppled autocrats and roiled politics across North Africa and the Middle East for the past two years will enter a new phase in 2013. Arab Spring will give way to Arab Summer, as the region faces a series of increasingly complicated overlapping conflicts that generate plenty of heat. As domestically focused U.S. and European governments resist deeper direct engagement in the region's turmoil, ructions and rivalries among Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Turkey, competition for influence between Sunni and Shia, a lack of economic progress, and a resurgence of militant groups will each heighten tensions.
Syria will remain at the heart of this trend. The country's civil war has extended beyond a battle over Bashar al Assad and his government's right to rule to become a proxy conflict for Shia powers -- Iran and Lebanese Hizbullah -- on the one side, and Sunni states -- Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar -- on the other. In the process, the country has become a magnet for jihadists, and the instability created by all these fights is spilling across borders into Lebanon, Turkey, Jordan, and Iraq.
Emerging conflicts elsewhere are less obvious. Egypt, Tunisia, and Morocco now have moderate Islamist governments. In Jordan and Kuwait, Islamist opposition groups threaten the governing dominance of secular administrations. But while the words and actions of mainstream parties like Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood and Tunisia's Ennahda make headlines in the West, the more serious risk comes from far more extreme organizations, often at the fringes of society, that threaten the ability of new leaders to govern and to keep the peace.
Fueling this trend is the reality that, across the region, new leaders are trying to consolidate political power and build popularity at a time when complex, structural economic problems demand solutions that are sure to make large numbers of people angry. New governments in Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, and Yemen will only prove durable if they can deliver tangible economic progress for an increasingly frustrated and impatient public.
The risk that a Salafist or jihadist group can exploit these frustrations to seize power in 2013 is very low, but groups like Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, Al Shabab, and smaller affiliates continue to attract support and new followers by using resentments against local regimes to foster anger at America and the West.
The biggest immediate worry, however, is the substantial challenges these groups pose for stability and investor sentiment in countries at the heart of the region's upheaval. Take Egypt. The Salafist Nour party won close to 15 percent of votes in 2012 legislative elections, and protests against U.S. interests orchestrated by minority Salafists in Cairo -- like the angry demonstration outside the U.S. Embassy that followed the controversy over a low-budget anti-Muslim American film last September -- demonstrate how quickly a small determined mob with an incendiary message can ignite an international media firestorm. That's bad news for Washington -- but worse news for an Egypt trying to restore its reputation as a regional powerbroker and tourist destination.
In Lebanon, a Salafist minority, emboldened by the success of their peers in Syria, is generating friction within the country's Sunni Arab political mainstream and threatening the stability of the country's economy and its banking sector, which depends heavily on moderate Sunni management and expatriate investors rolling over Lebanon's otherwise unsustainable debt.
In Yemen, reconstruction of the country's military will take time, providing Al Qaeda a potential security vacuum to exploit. In December, militants killed 17 Yemeni soldiers in a single strike, and the government has failed to stop multiple sabotage attacks on the country's oil pipelines and electricity towers, inflicting hundreds of millions of dollars in damage on an already struggling economy.
But Iraq may become 2013's newest Middle East hotspot. In a region where Sunni-Shia tensions are growing, a unified and stable Iraq will become less likely, and none of Syria's neighbors is more vulnerable to the threats created inside that country by radical Wahhabi clerics, often with Saudi or Qatari support, who are fueling the emergence of an increasingly radicalized and militarily experienced Salafist movement.
At the same time, the Kurdish regional government in Iraq is becoming more aggressive in promoting its energy development agenda at Baghdad's expense and will try to take political advantage of any spillover of unrest from Syria. Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has worked to preserve an increasingly delicate balance in relations with the United States, Sunni powers, and Iran, but Sunni-led violence inside the country might well encourage Iraq's Shia-led government to forge closer ties with Tehran, antagonizing the governments of Saudi Arabia and Turkey.
The Obama administration wants to focus on domestic challenges and an ongoing foreign policy shift toward Asia. But it will be hard not to notice that the Arab Spring is over. Regional rivalries are heating up, and Americans and Europeans will only add to the uncertainty by keeping their distance -- in hopes that they don't get burned.