Revolutions and Democracy in the Islamic World

27 march 2011

Yevgeny Satanovsky is President of the Institute of the Middle East.

Resume: With growing presence of China, India and Iran the composition of players and the alignment of forces in the Middle East in the 21st century will look more like that in the 17th century than the 20th. This fits in perfectly with the theory of historical cycles, although it may appear disappointing, if looked at from the positions of Paris, London, Brussels or Washington.

“All revolutions are caused by abuses of power, but the consequences of any of these revolutions are worse than any of the abuses that caused them.”

A long (and well) forgotten truth.

Tunisia, Egypt and Libya are a stunning paradox. The revolutions there, which have already caused a domino effect and put the entire system of checks and counter-balances in the Arab world on the brink of collapse, have been lauded not only by Iran and al-Qaeda, but also by a number of Western politicians, above all the U.S. President and the Secretary of State. Nicolas Sarkozy’s refusal to grant asylum to run-away Tunisian President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, who had for decades served as a stronghold of Paris’s interests in the Maghreb, and his unexpected U-turn with regard to Muammar Gaddafi could still be attributed to confusion, or to some “old scores,” obscure to the general public. But the appeals from Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, who in the midst of riots, looting and anti-government protests demanded that Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak should immediately turn on the Internet, ensure smooth operation of foreign media, enter into a dialogue with the Opposition and start the transfer of power, went beyond the bounds of what is not only reasonable, but just acceptable as well. Washington has once again demonstrated that it has neither allies, nor clearly understood interests in the region.

AMERICA’S IRREPARABLE MISTAKES

The frank, outright betrayal of the main partner of the U.S. in the Arab world, (Mubarak had fancied himself to be the one until recently) admits of no plausible explanation from the practical viewpoint. The “Liberal Opposition” under Mohammed ElBaradei, who urgently flew to Egypt with the intention to “take over,” and whose influence in the country is equal to nothing, has no chances whatsoever. Unless, of course, one leaves aside the possibility the ex-head of the IAEA may be used as a cover-up, doomed to be disposed of as soon as it has gone redundant. Statements by the Society of the Muslim Brothers the first thing they will do as soon as they rise to power will be to reconsider the Camp David Deal, and their own past provides few grounds for optimism. The ambitions of another potential challenger for the Egyptian presidency, Secretary-General of the League of Arab States Amr Moussa, are incommensurate with the capabilities of the military junta which has taken power in Egypt and which is gradually getting rid of members of the inner circle of ex-President Mubarak, starting with just-appointed Vice President Omar Suleiman, who concentrated enormous power in his hands until quite recently.

The American leadership’s “shot in one’s own leg” is hard to explain. For that one will have to believe in earnest the conspiracy theory that the United States seeks to establish “controlled chaos” worldwide, for which it will support any protest movement and stage all sorts of “color revolutions” irrespective of who these may be for or against. Another alternative is to suspect that the governments of the U.S. and of some European countries have suffered a brief attack of insanity (after a few days their rhetoric began to change after all). One has the impression the Western leaders in critical situations choose to follow not the voice of reason or public or personal obligations, but some latent instinct. That instinct prompts them to hail (even to the detriment of their own countries, themselves and the world order in general) any turmoil under the slogan of “striving for freedom and democracy,” wherever it may occur and whoever of their allies it may harm. 

What sort of conclusions the leaders of countries in the region from Morocco to Pakistan without exception have learned from this is easy to guess. Anyway, the Israelis, who have so far thought the Obama administration’s biased attitude to the government of Benjamin Netanyahu is rooted in the encounter of the American populist theory with the Middle Eastern realities that have torpedoed it, in anti-Israel lobbying and in personal animosity, all of a sudden began to realize: things are much worse, there is a system at work there. 

Within this system of historically incorrigible mistakes committed successively by presidents of the United States, Jimmy Carter in 1979 forced the Shah of Iran, Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, to give up the confrontation with Ayatollah Khomeini. The Islamic revolution in Iran, unopposed, attained victory to trigger a long chain of consequences for that country, the region and the world, one of which was the introduction of Soviet troops in Afghanistan. 

Carter’s successor, Ronald Reagan, supported not only fanatical mujahideen, but also the creation of al-Qaeda under Osama bin Laden. At this point it is worth recalling Dr. Najibullah, a general of the KHAD (the analogue of the Soviet security police KGB in the Democratic Republic of Afghanistan), who, with support from the West could have become a no worse leader in Afghanistan than Soviet KGB General Heydar Aliyev would be in Azerbaijan and Interior Ministry General Eduard Shevardnadze, in Georgia. Instead, Shiite political Islam in Iran received a worthy neighbor and rival – the Sunni terrorist Green International. The presidency of George Bush Sr. was too short to contribute to the strengthening of radical political Islam to any significant extent. He just fought the War in the Gulf to weaken the regime of Saddam Hussein, but he did not eliminate it at that very brief historical moment when that move could gain support from all regional players and yield the minimum benefit for extremist organizations. 

Bill Clinton, preferred to turn a blind eye on Pakistan’s newly-acquired nuclear capability and overlooked the “black nuclear market,” organized by the father of Pakistan’s bomb, Abdul Qadeer Khan. He supported the adventure of Israeli leftists, which brought Yassir Arafat to the Palestinian territories, and backed the Pakistani secret services’ operation to promote Taliban to the position of the leading military and political force in Afghanistan. It was Clinton’s Middle East policy that led to the Al-Aqsa intifada in Israel and the mega terrorist attack of September 11, 2001 in the United States. 

President George W. Bush, trying to tidy up Clinton’s grave Middle East legacy, cleared Iraq as a base not only for al-Qaeda and other Sunni radicals, but also for such a radical Shiite group as the Iranian-backed Mahdi Army. Iran, when its dangerous neighbor Saddam Hussein was deposed and hanged, was given a free hand to realize its imperial ambitions, including nuclear ones, and it is rapidly growing into a regional superpower. Attempts by Iran’s liberal President Mohammed Khatami to mend relations with Washington after the capture of Baghdad by the U.S. Army were rejected, which paved the way to power for the Iranian “neo-cons” and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. In Afghanistan, neither the Taliban nor al-Qaeda were defeated. Their leaders Mullah Omar and Osama bin Laden were on the loose and could not be found, but the U.S. administration, as represented by the Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, undertook to democratize the region in earnest.

As a result, Hamas became the leading military and political force in Palestine, and, having unleashed a civil war, seized the Gaza Strip. Pro-Iranian Hezbollah gained a firmer foothold in Lebanon; the Society of the Muslim Brothers won nearly 20 percent of the seats in the parliament of Egypt; and Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf, quite successful in fighting the Islamists, and the army he led ceded power to the corrupt clans of Bhutto-Zardari and Nawaz Sharif. A country with an arsenal of dozens of nuclear warheads is now in control of people who were at the origins of the Taliban and the Abdul Qadeer Khan conspiracy. 

Finally, Barack Obama “corrected” the policies of his predecessor and made a politically reasonable but strategically disastrous decision to withdraw troops from Iraq and Afghanistan and reconciled himself with the Iranian nuclear bomb, which would undoubtedly bring down the non-proliferation regime. The attempts to put strong pressures on Israel going beyond all the “red lines” in that country’s relations with the United States, made Jerusalem certain that its friends in the current administration are more dangerous than most of its enemies. Despite the unprecedented cooling of relations with Israel, the flirtation with the Islamic world, which began with Obama’s “historic speech” in Cairo, has not yielded the expected dividends. How really popular the U.S. under the leadership of Barack Obama is among the Muslims is best seen in the Egyptian media’s response to that speech: “Away goes a white dog, and along comes a black dog.”

The U.S. president’s support of a version of Egyptian democracy that incorporates Islamic radicals will, among other things, open the door to de-Christianization of Egypt. Copts, who make up 10 percent of its population, are already largely limited in their rights by the authorities, despite their continued demonstrations of loyalty, and remain a welcome target for terrorists. Their future in a new “democratic” Egypt is unlikely to be any better than that of their neighbors – Christians of Palestine, which over the years of Arafat’s and his successor’s rule, lost much of its once large Christian population. 

The stubborn backing of the corrupt and illegitimate regimes of Hamid Karzai in Afghanistan and Asif Ali Zardari in Pakistan, the inability to influence government crises in Iraq and Lebanon, the leaks of hundreds of thousands of classified documents through the portal Wikileaks, lack of coordination between the Department of State, the Pentagon and the intelligence services, a string of resignations of high-ranking military and the unprecedented public criticism they have mounted on the civilian authorities... All this prompts suspicions about a systemic crisis, and not only in the Middle East policy, but in the American government machinery as a whole. 

Obama’s idea of a “nuclear-free zone in the Middle East” and movement towards the “global nuclear zero” (both strongly supported by Saudi Arabia), are directed equally against Iran, which has breached the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), and Israel, which has never been a party to it. That these initiatives have no chance of being implemented is not the sole problem – they completely ignore Pakistan, although the risk of a handover of the Pakistani nuclear arsenal to Saudi Arabia, and, perhaps, someone else, is no less realistic than the prospects for the emergence of a nuclear Iran. Prince Turki al-Faisal’s decision to throw his weight in favor of Barack Obama’s nuclear initiatives in Davos at the end of last January is full of suggestion. The father of the Saudi intelligence services is known not only as the architect of al-Qaeda, he is also suspected of involvement in staging the September 11 attacks in the U.S. and the hostage-taking crisis at a theater in Moscow in the autumn of 2002. Against this background, the hasty and ill-considered statements addressed to Hosni Mubarak proved fresh evidence that the United States in the Middle East (North Africa and Western Asia) relies on theory – not practice, ignores the realities in its pursuit of a phantom “democracy” (precisely the way the Soviet Union in its day pressed for building phantom “socialism”), and mercilessly and mindlessly betrays allies for the sake of theoretical dogmatism.

DEMOCRACY MIDDLE EAST STYLE

It is generally accepted that democracy is the best and most advanced form of government. The relevant quote from Winston Churchill is a worn-out commonplace. The right of the people to rise in revolt against tyranny, a pillar of the Western political establishment for the past few centuries, remains a holy shrine, and both Washington and Brussels react to any encroachments on it as a heresy as blasphemous as a shade of doubt about the infallibility of the Pope. The discrepancy between the democracy theory and its implementation in real life are not a matter of analysis in most of the modern world. Still worse, “the world community” (to be more precise, the politicians, political scientists, political strategists, experts and journalists who belong to the inner circle that not only calls itself “the world community” but also fancies itself to be the one) remains unaware of that discrepancy.

One can postulate some Middle East policy axioms. Francis Fukuyama’s predicted “end of history” has not taken place, in contrast to Samuel Huntington’s “clash of civilizations.” In any case, in the Middle East no Western-style democracies are anywhere in sight, and the chances some may emerge in the coming decades are slim. The region is ruled by monarchies, authoritarian dictators or military juntas. All of them appeal to traditional values of Islam, as long as Islam does not question the legitimacy of sovereign power. The republican regimes in the Middle East may imitate the Western governments to the tiniest detail, but this imitation of European parliamentarianism fails the test of tolerance. The rights of ethnic and religious minorities exist as long as the supreme leader or ruling group intend to use them for their own purposes and to the extent allowed at the “top,” while sexual minority rights do not exist even in theory. In contrast to the Western community, the rights of the majority do not involve the protection of minorities, and even in the absence of arbitrariness and tyranny they give the majority an opportunity to oppress and destroy minorities physically. Political neosalafism welcomes this, and all of theorists’ references to the tolerance of Islam are in fundamental conflict with real practices, including contemporary ones. 

Any democratization and strengthening of parliamentarianism in the region, wherever they may be initiated, and whoever may lead them at the initial stage, eventually result in the strengthening of political Islam. Nationalist and liberal secular parties and movements may be used by the Islamists only as temporary, casual allies. Islamization of political life can be gradual and involve the use of parliamentary methods (the way it happened in Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Turkey), or of revolutionary ones (as was the case in Rahbar Khomeini’s Iran), but it is inevitable. 

The era of secular states, whose founders saw Islam as a historical argument in favor of secession from the parent countries, and not as a routine practice, mandatory for all, is drawing to a close. The costs of this may be small or they may be great. Various Islamist groups appeal to the values of various eras, from those of extreme barbarism to relatively moderate periods. Some of them are prepared to maintain relations with the West – to the extent these may be useful to them, while others are initially disposed to severing all ties. In some countries the Islamization of public and political life proceeds alongside the preservation of public institutions, while in others it eliminates them. Each country differs from the others in terms of the tribal factor’s impact on the situation, or the influence of religious brotherhoods and orders. But all movements without exception, those that have seized power or teamed up with the authorities and will be shaping regimes in the Middle East in the future, have some features to share. 

These movements are firmly opposed to letting Western values take root in the territories under their control, they struggle with Westernization and at the same time spread to the West “the values of the Islamic world” inside the closed ethnic and religious enclaves that have been growing in the EU, the U.S. and Canada under the slogans of the theory and practice of “multiculturalism.” The most notorious manifestations of this trend were the “Paris intifada,” the Danish “cartoon scandal,” the fight against Christmas symbols in British municipalities, attacks on “anti-Islamic” politicians and public figures and assassinations of some of them in Holland, the pan-European “war of minarets,” and the attempt to build a mosque on the site of the September 11 tragedy in New York. Despite statements by politicians like Angela Merkel and David Cameron to the effect that multiculturalism has exhausted itself, the spread of radical Islamism in the West has already gone too far, and the momentum of this process is far from easing. The growth of conservative, anti-immigrant political popular movements in Switzerland, Austria, Belgium and other European countries is a natural reaction, but it is also a belated one. In the meantime, the Islamists have successfully used the anti-globalization movement, human rights agencies and international organizations, including the UN, for achieving their strategic aims. 

CONSOLIDATION AGAINST ISRAEL

Israel is one of the main targets of modern political Islam, of all of its sects and trends. The struggle against Zionism is not just the sole goal that unites the Islamic world, but also the main achievement of that world in the international scene. As a result, there is an exaggerated attention of the world community, including the political establishment and the media, to the relationship between the Israelis and the Palestinians. The exclusiveness of the Palestinian problem is deeply ingrained in the public mind, not only in the Islamic world, but also in the West, although, perhaps, it is the least acute one in the chain of conflicts in the region. For the sake of creating a Palestinian state many are eager to defy the economic, political and demographic realities, and also common sense – as is seen in the string of recognitions by a number of Latin American and European countries of the hitherto non-existent Palestinian State within the 1967 borders. 

Israel is watching, waiting, getting ready for war and distancing itself from the events afoot in the region, so as not to provoke a conflict. The country’s leadership is aware that the security situation is returning to the days that preceded the Six-Day War. Any evolution of the authorities in Egypt and Jordan will be only possible through a cooling of relations with Israel, because for many decades the main demand on the streets in these Arab countries has been severance of diplomatic and economic relations with the Jewish state. This slogan has been used by all organized opposition groups, from the Society of Muslim Brothers to trade unions and secular liberals. 

Not only Amr Moussa and ElBaradei, both well-known for their anti-Israeli sentiment, but any government, too, will be forced to reconsider Mubarak’s legacy in relations with Israel. This will inevitably cause a weakening or cessation of the struggle against anti-Israel terrorism in the Sinai Peninsula, which has the backing of both Sunni extremist groups and Iran. The demonstrative passage of Iranian warships through the Suez Canal came as a symbol of these changes. An end to the Egyptian blockade of Gaza will open a route for delivering there medium-range missiles Zilzal, capable of hitting not only the nuclear reactor at Dimona and the U.S. radar in the Negev, which controls the airspace of Iran, but also Tel-Aviv and Jerusalem. Support for Hamas from Syria and Iran will intensify, and the Palestinian National Authority (PNA) in the West Bank will grew weaker. All this will dramatically increase the likelihood of terrorist attacks against Israel and of a military operation by the latter not only against Iran, for which Jerusalem has prepared for several years now, but along the entire line of the border, including Gaza and the West Bank. 

Military operations against Lebanon and Syria are possible in case Hezbollah goes active on the northern border. A war with Egypt will be likely only if the Islamists come to power and break the peace treaty with Israel. Any scenarios of hostilities may be possible (depending on whether the U.S. discontinues supplies of arms and spare parts to Egypt), including a strike against the Aswan dam in case of developments catastrophic for Israel. The situation in Egypt will get dramatically worse in three-to-five years’ time, when the government of South Sudan, whose independence was confirmed in the January 2011 referendum, will block the upper reaches of the Nile with hydro power plants. These will reduce water runoff towards North Sudan and Egypt, putting the latter on the brink of an ecological disaster, enhanced by a demographic catastrophe. On March 1, 2011, Burundi – the last, sixth Nile upstream country – joined an agreement on water usage from the Nile River (the Cooperative Framework Agreement). The move has put an end to a decades-long accord between Egypt and Sudan, which claimed 90 percent of the Nile’s flow for the two countries. At the same time, the physical survival of Egypt’s population will not be guaranteed, if and when the maximum allowable number of residents of 86 million is exceeded (currently Egypt has a population of 80.5 million).

Israel’s conflict with the Arab world may be triggered by a crisis in the PNA. A Palestinian State has not materialized to this day. All the improvements in the economy of the West Bank are an achievement of Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, who is in deep conflict with President Abu Mazen. An attempt at the president’s overthrow by Fatah’s former number one strongman in Gaza, Mohammed Dahlan, led to the expulsion of the latter to Jordan. The PNA’s chief negotiator, Saeb Erikat, was accused of corruption and dismissed from all activities. Abu Mazen is completely isolated inside the Palestinian elite. Aggressive anti-Israeli actions by the PNA leadership in the international scene are in stark contrast to its total dependence on Israel’s economy and security. The population of the West Bank depends on job opportunities in Israel or in Israeli settlements in Judea and Samaria. Terrorist attacks against Israeli civilians (the killing of a Jewish settler family in the Israeli settlement of Itamar in March 2011 was the latest shocking attack) have exhausted the patience of the Israeli government and provoked a resumption of mass construction of Israeli settlements in the West Bank.

IRAN AND OTHERS

Without support from the Israeli security agencies the fall of the regime in Ramallah will be a matter of several months. The implications for Jordan can be very severe. So far King Abdullah II has managed to hold back the Palestinian subjects with support from the Circassians, Chechens and Bedouins. The change of the prime minister and several other political and economic measures have so far allowed him to avoid a scenario that his father implemented in “Black September” 1970 (the suppression of the Palestinian uprising). The situation in Jordan is further aggravated by the factor of Iraqi refugees (700,000), as well as financial and land scam, blamed on Palestinian relatives of Queen Rania – the Yassin family. In contrast to the years of King Hussein’s rule, these days Jordan is facing no dangers from Syria or Saudi Arabia, but it remains a target for radical Sunni Islamists. One should note a shift in relations between Jordan and Iran – another alarming signal for Israel.

Iran, along with Turkey, is a leading political and military player in the modern Islamic world, and a successful competitor for influence apart from the traditional leaders, such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Morocco. Despite the economic sanctions, Iran is proceeding with the work on its nuclear program, and although according to the ex-director of the Mossad, Meir Dagan, it is unlikely to deliver a nuclear bomb before 2015, Iran has accumulated enough fissile material to make five warheads, and by 2020 it may be ready for a limited nuclear war. Immediate dangers from the Islamic Republic of Iran (IRI) are addressed to the neighbors in the Persian Gulf and Israel, which Tehran has consistently promised to destroy. 

Speculation about the possibility of Iran dealing a strike on the European Union or the United States is untenable. Air strikes against Iranian nuclear facilities by Israel and the U.S. are unlikely. America can destroy the industrial potential of Iran, but it has no human resources to conduct a ground operation, which would be a must, if the Iranian nuclear program is to be eliminated in earnest. Israel does not possess the necessary military capabilities, although the computer virus that hit Iranian nuclear facilities is linked – not without a reason – with the confrontation between the two countries. 

The power struggle in Iran is about to end in favor of the generals of the Revolutionary Guards, who are pushing the ayatollahs to the sidelines. The Green Movement of the orthodox Islamists and the liberals has suffered a defeat. Although it retained the slogans of the Islamic Revolution, Iran is transforming itself into a state where ideology will increasingly rely on superpower Persian nationalism. Iran is successfully developing relations with China, Africa, Latin America, Eastern Europe, India, Pakistan and Turkey. In fact, it has shared with the latter the spheres of influence in Iraq, whose government coordinates its actions not only with the U.S., but also with Iran. In the territory of the Middle East Iran’s interests stretch from Afghanistan’s Herat to Mauritania’s Nouakchott (Iran’s growing positions in Mauritania caused Morocco to sever diplomatic relations with it, while arms supplies to West Africa have complicated its relations with several leading countries in the region). 

Tehran avoids direct conflicts with opponents to prefer “proxy wars,” being fought by its satellites. The Second Lebanon War and Operation Cast Lead in Gaza were Iranian-Israeli wars, and behind the conflict of Yemeni Hausa tribes with Saudi Arabia, according to some analysts, there was Iran as well. Iran’s aggressive stance against the smaller Gulf monarchies relies on the presence of Shiite communities in such countries as Bahrain, Qatar, and, to a lesser extent, in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Kuwait. Iran’s only ally in the Arab world is Syria, which, with support from Hezbollah, is gradually regaining control of the situation in Lebanon and continues to supervise Hamas, whose political leadership is headquartered in Damascus. In view of the sanctions imposed on Iran the future of its gas export to the EU depends heavily on cooperation with Turkey, which will use this situation to its advantage until its interests come into conflict with those of Iran (which, no doubt, will happen in the long run). 

When it set the course towards building a “new Ottoman Empire,” the Turkish leadership forestalled events to launch gradual Islamization of the country’s political and public life. The ruling party forced the army away from the leverage of power under the slogans of democracy and fight against corruption. It railroaded all the necessary constitutional amendments through parliament and nipped in the bud another military coup. Turkey’s economic success allows it to act without regard to the European Union or the United States. And participation in NATO as the second largest army of the bloc gives it substantial freedom of maneuver, including in Iraqi Kurdistan and in relations with Israel, which grew much cooler after the Freedom Flotilla incident. In the meantime, that country remains split along ethnic lines (the Kurdish question is still relevant), the secular opposition to the ruling Justice and Development Party is strong, and the army’s leadership is in confusion. However, whatever factors (or combinations of factors) may provoke anti-government unrest, the triumvirate of the prime minister, the president and the foreign minister will retain sufficient resources to implement the plans for economic and diplomatic expansion in Africa, the Islamic world and Eastern Europe. Turkey has more reasons than Iran to lay claim to the status of a regional superpower, for which it has the necessary potential, not overburdened, in contrast to the IRI, by any external conflicts. 

Syria’s stability rests on cooperation with Turkey and Iran, on the condition of better relations with the U.S. and the EU. The Bashar Assad-led Alawite ruling military elite is balancing between Sunni Arabs and Christian Arabs; it is suppressing the Kurds and making use of the business activity of Armenians. However, in case the Egyptian Society of Muslim Brothers gets a firmer foothold in Syria, one should not rule out unrest like the one Hafez Assad suppressed only at the cost of great bloodshed in 1982, and which can weaken or even bring down the regime. The latter has strengthened its positions in Lebanon, but the situation inside Syria proper is complicated by the presence of Iraqi refugees (more than one million), and to a lesser extent of the Palestinian ones (400 thousand). 

Lebanon, after the fall of the Saad Hariri government, is struggling through its own crisis, sparked by a confrontation between the Syrian and Saudi lobbies (the latter put the stake on confrontation with Damascus and lost). A gradual descent into a civil war is not ruled out, with Sheikh Nasrallah’s Hezbollah playing the leading role. Palestinian refugee camps (more than 400 thousand people) may spark a conflict again, just as they did in 1975-1978; however, a conflict between Hezbollah and its opponents is more likely.

In the Arabian Peninsula one observes a catastrophic situation in Yemen. The country’s breakup looks almost unavoidable after the ousting of President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who has been at the helm in Sana since 1978 and controlled South Yemen since 1990, and may well trigger irreversible processes in Saudi Arabia, which has so far been able to keep protests among the population under control. Yemen is a scene where the interests of Iran and the United States, and Qatar and Saudi Arabia have clashed. That country is not only the birthplace of many “global jihad” fighters (Osama bin Laden has a Yemeni background), but a real “pot of trouble.” The conflict between the president and the tribes, which have united in the opposition organization al-Liqa’a al-Mushtarak and which categorically rejected the attempt at a transfer of supreme power by inheritance, looks pretty much like a similar problem in Egypt. However, the opposition of Shafii southerners and Zaidi northerners, thriving on the anger of the former military elite from the South, ousted from power and stripped of benefits and privileges, is a purely local feature.

Yemen is the first country in the Middle East that is capable of unleashing a “water war” with neighboring Saudi Arabia (in the near future Sana will run the risk of becoming the first capital of the world with a zero water balance), especially so since a number of historic Yemeni provinces were annexed by the Saudis in the early years of the 20th century. The glaring poverty of the Yemeni population, heavily armed and in the habit of chewing the local drug khat, is an additional risk factor. It will be sheer waste of time guessing whether the 25.7 million Saudis, most of whom have never held a weapon in their hands, will be able to resist 23.5 million Yemenis, who have always carried weapons as far back as they can remember. The ability of the Saudi elite, whose top rulers are old enough to look like the Soviet Politburo of the late 1980s, to control the situation in a way other than bribing belligerent tribes on the southern borders and the radicals of the “erring sect” inside the country is very questionable. Given the importance of the Strait of Bab al-Mandab, the impact of a hypothetical conflict between Yemen and Saudi Arabia, or of a civil war in Yemen, on the world energy market would be equivalent to plugging the Suez Canal. In case General Saleh has no worthy successor, and there is no such man in Yemen (in contrast to Egypt), the country will run the risk of turning into a territory of piracy, like Somalia, the more so since hundreds of thousands of Somali refugees are already present in its territory. 

What consequences a collapse of the ruling regime in Yemen will induce in Ibadi Oman, where Sultan Qaboos bin Said – a ruler since 1970, who is trying to calm protests against the supreme authority with subsidies and promises of democracy – has no heirs, and in the smaller Gulf monarchies, is anyone’s guess. While balancing between the United States (military bases in Kuwait, Qatar and Bahrain), Britain (presence in Oman) and France (which has announced plans for the construction of a military base in the UAE), on the one hand, and Iran (the conflict with the UAE and Bahrain), on the other, and also Saudi Arabia, all these countries have established an informal relationship with Israel – just in case of a possible war. Israel-made water purification plants, agro-complexes and safety systems at strategic facilities, carrying logos of foreign affiliates of Israeli firms or no indication of the country of manufacture at all, are as common on the southern coast of the Gulf as Iranian ships in local ports, Iranian bank accounts, and Iranians at local business centers. Oman is in a state of self-isolation, enhanced by the disclosure of an Islamist plot, which Muscat has blamed on the UAE. 

Kuwait has not recovered from the Iraqi occupation of 1990-1991 yet. Bahrain’s Sunni dynasty has had to request the Cooperation Council for the Arab States of the Gulf to send forces to suppress antigovernment protests of the Shiite majority in the country, which are believed – not without grounds – to be encouraged by Iran. The economic crisis has weakened the UAE, particularly Dubai, causing a collapse of the “pyramid of real estate,” which had been the primary source of its well-being over years. Only moderately Wahhabi Qatar – the holder of the world’s third largest gas reserves, which for decades was the home of Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi, the spiritual leader of the Muslim Brotherhood who is sometimes described as a “Sunni Khomeini” – has been building up its political influence. As a mediator of regional conflicts, it has successfully competed with such giants of the Arab world as Egypt and Saudi Arabia. The Qatari Emir’s main weapon in the struggle for dominance in the inter-Arab political scene is Al-Jazeera, whose effectiveness is seen in the ban imposed on it in Egypt, where that TV channel in no small measure contributed to “rocking the boat.” But this tool may prove useless if unrest spills over to the territory of Qatar itself. In this case, foreign workers, often exceeding the indigenous populations many times over, and stateless Arab nomads – bidun – may turn into the main factor of instability in the Gulf monarchies, including Saudi Arabia.

Another destabilizing factor for the peninsula is its proximity to the Horn of Africa, where on the shores one finds the poorest, civil strife-ravaged and refugee-crowded countries: Eritrea, Djibouti and piratical Somalia, split into several enclaves, of which Puntaland and Somaliland are the largest. Islamists from the Al-Shabab movement and other radical groups are the only force that can unite that country, subjugating or eliminating the warlords, the way the Taliban in its day did in Afghanistan. A frightening prospect, indeed, especially in view of the utter failure of the world community to fight the pirates, rampaging in ever-greater areas of the Indian Ocean. One should not forget about the problem of borders, for their fundamental redrawing will be inevitable after the bloodless breakup of the Sudan. North Sudan in the near-term historical perspective may unite with Egypt, particularly so in case of the Islamization of the latter, or disintegrate into separate enclaves. It is not accidental that the Sudanese Islamist leader Hassan al-Turabi has been repeatedly arrested by the Sudanese authorities.

Unrest in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya threatens to cause the most regrettable impact on the situation in Algeria, where a low-intensity civil war has been smoldering since 1992. President Abdulaziz Bouteflika is very old, the conflict between the Arabs and the Berbers remains where it was decades ago, and the Islamists are still there. Stability in Morocco is in jeopardy, because the Jewish and Christian holy shrines for the Maghreb’s al-Qaeda look as legitimate targets for attack as foreign tourists. Mauritania, where the number of slaves is estimated at 800,000, is experiencing a sequence of military coups and is very receptive to any revolutionary calls. 

The civil war in Libya is developing in an unpredictable way, and the involvement of Muammar Gaddafi’s African mercenaries is threatening to blow up the continent, especially as quite a few African countries have been swept by protests, like those taking place in the Arab world. This situation poses a special threat to Europe as hundreds of thousands to several million African and Arab refugees may flood into the European continent. The international military intervention makes the situation increasingly unpredictable.

The sole, albeit poor, consolation in this situation is that the regional upheaval poses no threats to Iraq, Afghanistan or Pakistan. The former two have long been not so much states as territories. As for Pakistan, with the Islamists deeply entrenched in the North-Western Province and in Punjab, the Pashtun Taliban in the tribal areas, with the Baluchistan and Sindh separatists and with the internal strife among the government, the army and the judiciary, Afghanistan alone would be enough for its collapse. After which its formidable nuclear arsenals will emerge on the “free market,” and the international community will have a much more significant cause for concern than the future of the Palestinian State or the ruler of any single Arab country, even though that single country is Egypt. 

And lastly, it should be remembered that the declining influence of the great powers in the Middle East is creating vacuum, and New Delhi will fill part of it in some provinces of Afghanistan. In all other territories of the region, including what is left of Afghanistan, Beijing’s influence will soar. As a consequence, the composition of players and the alignment of forces in the Middle East in the 21st century will look more like that in the 17th century than the 20th. This fits in perfectly with the theory of historical cycles, although it may appear disappointing, if looked at from the positions of Paris, London, Brussels or Washington.

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