Political Contagion Threat in the MENA Region
|Risk Zones since Tunisia/Egypt Uprisings
NB: Jordan and Yemen could go either way, but those governments have taken steps to diffuse the potential for internal conflict
The abrupt end of the 23-year reign of Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in mid-January 2011 revealed two truths that have undoubtedly unnerved the leaders of similarly undemocratic regimes throughout the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). First, Ben Ali’s downfall highlighted the potential for the convergence of unpredictable events (an individual’s shocking act of desperation and a steep rise in food prices) to light the fuse of accumulated public grievances—high unemployment, restrictions on the exercise of basic human rights, wealth disparity, and a lack of government accountability—and ignite a generalized uprising capable of forcing even a seemingly secure autocratic ruler from power. Second, the Tunisian example underscores the fact that a regime whose hold on power rests on the threat of force is only as strong as its control over the institutions—the military, the police, the intelligence services—responsible for making good on the threat.
Ben Ali’s downfall fueled speculation of a contagion of revolt that might topple (or at least weaken) other autocratic regimes in the region. The initial skepticism that greeted such predictions pretty much evaporated in late January, amid a popular revolt in Egypt that prompted President Hosni Mubarak, who has led the government for three decades, to declare that he will not stand for another term in September 2011, and raised the possibility that the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) could be forced to surrender its effective monopoly on political power.
If nothing else, developments in Egypt have put the lie to a widely accepted truth about politics in the MENA region, namely, that the example of the 1979 revolution in Iran, which resulted in the replacement of a repressive autocratic regime by a repressive theocratic regime, had convinced the vast majority of mainstream Arabs that they were better off with the devil they knew. The outlawed Muslim Brotherhood is by far the largest opposition force in Egypt, making it all but certain that the group will play a central role in any future transition to democracy. However, the risk that a democratic revolution might be hijacked by Islamists has clearly not deterred the secular, pro-democracy elements that have spearheaded the campaign of protest against Mubarak’s regime.
Consequently, the possibility of similar uprisings erupting across the region must be considered a plausible threat. But while the example set by the people of Tunisia and Egypt is sure to embolden political reformers throughout the region, not every country is ripe for a popular uprising, and not every regime is equally susceptible to being toppled, even under conditions of generalized political upheaval.
So, who is vulnerable? As noted, dissatisfaction with economic conditions, perceptions of widespread corruption within the state apparatus, and pent-up frustration over tight political restrictions all played a role in fueling the unrest in both Tunisia and Egypt. However, given that similar conditions are present in most of the MENA countries, those factors do not begin to explain why the trouble started in Tunisia and spread next to…
The Egyptian case suggests that several other factors are also involved, among them the presence of disunity among the ruling elite, particularly between members of the government and leaders of the military, that create a public perception that a rebellion can succeed. It has long been suspected that the aged President Mubarak has been grooming his son, Gamal Mubarak, to succeed him in office, a plan denounced loudly by the opposition and more quietly within the Egyptian power structure, particularly among high-ranking members of the military. If Mubarak is forced from power, it will be because he is abandoned by the military, and disquiet among the top brass over his suspected dynastic ambitions means that possibility cannot be discounted.
Perception can also be expected to play an important role in shaping the degree to which poor socioeconomic conditions and the absence of meaningful democratic participation fuel a popular uprising. Although Egypt and Tunisia are among the poorest countries in the MENA region (measured in terms of poverty levels and per capita GDP), and unemployment is very high, particularly among educated youth, general socioeconomic conditions have improved under the rule of Ben Ali and Mubarak. Likewise, while neither Tunisia nor Egypt can be characterized as a democracy, the regimes in both countries have introduced modest reforms over the past decade or so that have created the appearance of democracy with none of the substance.
That may turn out to be their fatal weakness. Although there is clearly no simple explanation for the events of the past month, it appears that a crucial factor is not the degree of socioeconomic hardship and political exclusion, per se, but rather the disparity between reality and popular expectations in those areas. It is our assessment that the protests in Tunisia and Egypt have been fueled less by the facts of poverty and a lack of political participation than by a sense among the demonstrators that they have been deceived by their governments with the illusion of prosperity and the pretense of democracy.
Finally, the significant role of modern tools of communication, particularly social media, should not be overlooked. It is no accident that the Egyptian government responded to the outbreak of anti-government protests by shutting down the Internet. Although the move backfired, that authorities took such a step reflects the fact that such tools are widely available and used in Egypt, which is not uniformly the case across the region.
Keeping in mind that the spread of revolt is not inevitable, that the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt have alerted other regimes in the region to the risks they could face, and that similar circumstances will not necessarily produce similar reactions among the populations of each country, what follows is an assessment of which countries are most susceptible to the spread of a political fever, and—a separate but by no means unrelated consideration—which regimes are most vulnerable to being forced from power if the contagion hits.
High Risk Countries
Many of the ingredients for rebellion are clearly present in Algeria. Unemployment is quite high (by some estimates more than double the official rate of 10.2%). A surge in food prices triggered violent rioting in the first week of January, and although the government has taken steps to address that problem, tensions continue to run high, as Algerians struggle to understand why their standard of living is deteriorating even as global oil prices approach the $100 per barrel mark.
President Abdelaziz Bouteflika won re-election with more than 92% of the vote in 2009, but his victory was tainted by the decision of the main opposition parties to boycott the election, on the grounds that the government was using its control of the electoral apparatus to ensure a big win for the incumbent. The president’s authority has more recently been eroded by corruption allegations that forced the resignation or sacking of several of his key allies in 2010, a development widely interpreted as evidence of a brewing power struggle between the civilian government and the top military brass. Moreover, an attempt to position Bouteflika’s brother to stand as the presidential candidate of the governing National Liberation Front (FLN) in 2013 has reportedly sown division within the ruling party.
Popular unrest is not unusual in Algeria. During his first term, Bouteflika’s hold on power was in danger of being cut short when an uprising among the minority Berber population galvanized a general anti-government movement. In that instance, the president was saved by the strong support he received from the military. Should he confront a similar crisis in 2011, there is little reason to believe that the generals will come to his rescue a second time.
Unlike its North African neighbors, Morocco is a monarchy, and also boasts a fairly competitive political environment, with numerous parties typically winning a share of seats in the Parliament. However, the appointment of the prime minister is a royal prerogative, and for all intents and purposes it is the king who determines both the composition and the policy agenda of the government.
State authorities have been accused of containing the political influence of the Islamist Party for Justice and Development (PJD) through a combination of electoral fraud, legal harassment, and pressure on non-religious parties to exclude the PJD from the government. Even so, the Islamist party holds the second largest number of seats in the current Parliament, a fact that underscores its popularity among the electorate. As such, the PJD has both a motive and the means to create serious trouble for the monarchy if it were emboldened to do so. That threat is compounded by the presence of Justice and Charity, a non-political charity organization that is viewed with suspicion by the monarchy owing to its vast popularity among the urban poor. Were Justice and Charity to join the PJD in launching a campaign to bring down the government (or perhaps even the monarchy), the military could be hard-pressed to hold back the tide.
Officials in Rabat are clearly nervous, and anxious to avoid even a hint of provocation, as indicated by the vehement denials issued by the government in response to reports in the Spanish media that military troops were being redeployed from the disputed Western Sahara region to Casablanca and other large cities. As in Algeria, state authorities have also begun to stockpile basic food items, a move that has driven global food prices even higher. The government has also promised to maintain subsidies on staple goods, a pledge that could become too expensive to keep if market prices continue to rise.
The powers that be in Morocco have some things working in their favor. Owing to the fragmentation of representation in the Parliament, forming a majority government has typically required the inclusion of several parties in the ruling coalition of the day. Consequently, most of the country’s parties are part of the existing establishment, and so are unlikely to throw their support behind a popular rebellion. Likewise, fear of the Islamist designs of the PJD and Justice and Charity could pose an obstacle to creating the type of broad-based anti-government movement currently threatening Mubarak’s regime in Egypt.
Although the danger of a popular uprising is high, the risk that a mass revolt might result in a revolutionary restructuring of the political system—whether through the abolition of the monarchy or a significant reduction of the king’s political role—is lower. It is unclear to what degree public anger might become focused on the monarchy in the event of a rebellion. Although Morocco’s human rights record leaves much to be desired, King Mohamed has a reputation as a reformist, and might be able to quell a domestic uprising without surrendering the throne or key powers. Moreover, there is no reason to doubt the willingness of the military to defend the institution of the monarchy if it came under threat.
A popular uprising that followed the disputed presidential election in June 2009 was successfully repressed, and the post-rebellion trial and execution of some leading opposition figures seems to have sapped the democracy movement of much of its energy. Nevertheless, the theocratic regime has been left weakened and divided, and international sanctions are contributing to economic hardship that will feed the repressed outrage of the population, creating the potential for a renewed eruption of unrest.
President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad lacks both popular legitimacy and the support of a majority in the Parliament. His hold on power depends on the continued support of the country’s supreme religious leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, whose own authority was eroded by the events of summer 2009. In short, the regime is vulnerable, and if the unfolding events in Tunisia and Egypt do unleash a contagion of rebellion, Iran could easily contract the disease.
However, the potential for a second Iranian revolution is limited, owing to the presence of a powerful counter-revolutionary force in the form of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), a 125,000-strong military organization whose central mission is to ensure the continuation of the system of clerical rule. Members of the IRGC typically are driven by a combination of religious zealotry and a sense of fierce national pride, neither of which suggests that they might join forces with a pro-democracy movement bent on toppling the theocratic regime in significant numbers. Even if an uprising escalated to the point where rule by the clerics became untenable, the IRGC could be expected to assume direct control of the government, if for no other reason than to protect its extensive economic interests.
Moderate Risk Countries
As elsewhere in North Africa, Col. Muammar al-Qaddafi’s authoritarian regime has responded to the ouster of Ben Ali by erecting a bulwark against an outbreak of unrest. Thus far, the government is focusing on carrots, while carefully avoiding moves that suggest it is preparing for the possibility of using sticks. The government has eliminated all taxes on foodstuffs, and recently announced plans to invest $24 billion to provide housing for the country’s rapidly growing population. The moves followed street protests and mass squatting by homeless inhabitants in Benghazi and elsewhere that in some cases resulted in clashes with police.
The evident anxiety of leaders in Tripoli is understandable. Qaddafi is the region’s longest-serving ruler, and throughout his career he has justified his hold on power by making ambitious promises to improve the lives of the Libyan masses while implementing policies and engaging in displays of diplomatic provocation that have undermined his ability to deliver the goods.
As in Egypt, the issue of succession has become a focus of political speculation in Libya, and it is widely expected that Qaddafi will anoint one of his sons as his heir-apparent. Seif al-Islam, a reform-minded civilian, has had a prickly relationship with his father, and is not trusted by the military establishment. A younger son, Mutassim, is a career military man and the current national security adviser, but he does not share his brother’s interest in reform, and a scandal involving his hosting of lavish, alcohol-drenched parties in the Caribbean has not endeared him to the economically struggling population of Libya.
Recent developments suggest that Seif al-Islam may no longer be in the running to succeed his father, a decision that could help to patch up cracks in the unity of the military. At the same time, rising oil prices mean that the regime should be able to count on sufficient resources to ease the immediate economic hardships of the population. However, with one long-entrenched regime already toppled to Libya’s west and another under siege to the country’s east, the possibility that the long-suffering population of Libya might decide that it has had enough of the colonel and his eccentricities no longer seems that far-fetched, and it is doubtful that the fires of unrest, once ignited, might be extinguished by the offer of Mutassim as a replacement.
The most democratic of the Persian Gulf monarchies is also the only one presently facing an elevated risk of domestic turmoil in the event of a political contagion in the region. Although the opposition is divided on many issues, Islamists and secular pro-democracy activists hold sizeable blocs of seats in the Parliament, and have not infrequently worked together to pressure the royal family to cede a greater measure of political power to the elected legislature.
The opposition has repeatedly flexed its muscle by exercising its right to order members of the royally appointed government to appear for parliamentary questioning on allegations of corruption and incompetent governance. Initially, attempts to force members of the royal family to submit to the humiliation of such a “grilling” were circumvented by the formal resignation (and rapid reappointment) of the government or the dissolution of the Parliament and the holding of an early election. However, in recent years, members of the royal family, including the prime minister, have appeared before the Parliament for questioning, which has merely emboldened the opposition to press its advantage.
Emir Sabah has periodically threatened to use his trump card—the power to suspend the Parliament and rule by decree—but is clearly reluctant to take that step. However, it is possible that he might do so, and in the current political climate, such a move could trigger an eruption of unrest. Although it is unlikely that the monarchy would be toppled, the royal family might be forced to make significant concessions to restore order, a development that could in turn trigger destabilizing infighting among the sheikhs.
To the extent that the recent upheaval in the region has been fueled by anger over political restrictions and rampant corruption and cronyism within the state apparatus, Syria would seem to be a prime candidate for a domestic explosion. But, as noted, it appears that the unrest in Egypt, in particular, is more a reflection of the dashed hopes of the Egyptian people for greater democracy—a disappointment that became acute following the near obliteration of the opposition in highly suspect parliamentary elections held in November–December 2010—than of anger over the limits on democracy. In that regard, the Syrian government headed by President Bashar al-Assad has little reason to fear falling victim to unmet expectations, because it has done nothing to raise them.
At the same time, the government has retained fairly close control over the economy, such that it can more quickly and effectively respond to alleviate economic hardship. Moreover, while the Syrian government has approached economic liberalization more cautiously than the regimes in Tunisia and Egypt, the unemployment and poverty rates are lower than in either of those countries, per capita income is higher than in Egypt, and the wealth gap (measured in terms of spending power) has narrowed over the last five years.
Unlike many of the other Arab governments in the region, Assad enjoys the advantage of being able to use the US as a political foil, blaming Washington for Syria’s troubles, while scoring political points by assuming the role of the defender of his country’s sovereignty and national pride in diplomatic scuffles with the US. The recent collapse of the anti-Syrian government in Lebanon, which was orchestrated by Syria’s Hezbollah allies, creates the potential for Damascus to reclaim its influence in Beirut, the loss of which is the biggest blot on the president’s otherwise strong record in that regard.
Nevertheless, President Assad is far from invulnerable. He is a member of the minority Alawite community, which makes up only about 12% of the Syrian population, but has enjoyed a privileged position since Assad’s father came to power in 1970, a fact that has contributed to resentment among the majority Sunni Muslim population. In addition, although the Alawites have been claimed as members by the Shia sect of Islam, many Sunnis do not consider the Alawites to be Muslims at all.
Low Risk Countries
At present, the Gulf monarchies other than Kuwait are at much lower risk of confronting a popular rebellion. The strict limitations on political activity in Saudi Arabia, Oman, and the United Arab Emirates leave opponents of the incumbent regimes with virtually no space within which to organize a rebellion, and the relatively high living standards enjoyed by the inhabitants of those countries makes it unlikely that a large number of people in any of the three nations would even be inclined to try.
On the other side of the political spectrum, the entrenched democratic institutions in Israel and the ongoing project to plant a fully democratic system in the soil of Iraq rules out the threat of revolt in either of those countries. That is not to say than neither will be troubled by political unrest—in fact, a high level of domestic turmoil can be taken for granted in Iraq—but such upheaval is unlikely to be a direct result of the events unfolding elsewhere in the region.
As noted, stockpiling of foodstuffs by nervous regimes is already contributing to stronger upward pressure on global food prices, while concerns that major oil producing nations could become engulfed in domestic turmoil is pushing global oil prices higher. The unrest in Egypt has also raised concerns about the flow of traffic through the Suez Canal, pointing to increased insurance costs for shipments through the crucial waterway.
Understandably, the chaos in Egypt has contributed to risk aversion among the investment community, resulting in a reversal of short-term investment flows and increased currency volatility. A more generalized spread of unrest would also push up the risk premium for debt across the region, creating serious problems for debt-troubled nations, chief among them the UAE.
Although higher oil prices will provide some governments with the wherewithal to purchase the quiescence of the population, the unchecked rise of prices would threaten economic recoveries in the US and Europe, raising the threat of another global recession that could send oil prices plummeting. In that event, none of regimes in the region (with the notable exception of Israel) could be considered safe from the danger of destabilizing unrest.
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