Note: Today is the third in a series of posts that detail Eurasia Group's Top Risks for 2013.
The Middle East 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. As Americans and Europeans resist deeper involvement, 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 remains the central arena of conflict, as Shia powers -- Iran and Lebanese Hezbollah -- on the one side, and Sunni states -- Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar -- on the other compete for leverage. Jihadists have also entered the fray, and turmoil has spilled across the country's 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 militant organizations that threaten the ability of new leaders to govern and maintain security.
Fueling this trend is the reality that, across the region, new leaders are trying to consolidate power and build popularity at a time when complicated economic problems demand solutions that will make large numbers of people angry. New governments in Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, and Yemen will last only 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 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.
But Iraq may become 2013's newest hotspot. Sunni-Shia tensions are growing, 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, now fueling the emergence of an increasingly radicalized and militarily experienced Salafist movement. The Kurdish regional government is becoming more aggressive in promoting its energy development agenda at Baghdad's expense, and 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 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.
On Wednesday, we'll profile Risk #4: Washington Politics.
By Hani Sabra and Willis Sparks
Thousands of Egyptians are now gathering across their country to chant their denunciations of Egypt's new draft constitution, a document completed by the Islamist-dominated constituent assembly just days ago. Pro-democracy revolutionaries, the young people who sparked the movement that toppled Hosni Mubarak in 2011, warn that the new constitution will give the military enormous power, fail to force the president to appoint a vice president, and the vague language on freedoms of religion and the press, and protections for the rights of women could actually be used to discriminate.
But when the constitution is put to a popular vote less than two weeks from now, it will pass. Why? Because its authors (the Muslim Brotherhood) and their sometime political partners (the military), remain the two most powerful groups in the country. Because the Islamists campaigning for it are organized and popular. And because they will argue, as they did in March 2011 during a debate over temporary constitutional amendments, that it is the duty of Muslims to vote for a document that will provide longed-for stability and that reflects the will of a people that elected the Muslim Brothers to power. (Seventy-seven percent of voters approved the 2011 constitutional amendments.)
There is another reason why the draft constitution will pass. The non-Islamist opposition has not made a clear and compelling case to voters that a "no" vote will make Egypt more stable and prosperous. The protesters warn that this constitution does not reflect the aspirations of those who ousted Mubarak to gain "bread, freedom, and social justice." They're right. But they haven't explained to large numbers of voters why a rejection of this document will improve their lives. The Islamists insist that a vote against the constitution is a vote for uncertainty, instability, and continued conflict.
In short, the protesters offer no clear alternative. There is no constitution B. Faced with a choice between yes and no, most Egyptians will choose the path they believe will move things forward toward a restoration of order-even though a new constitution won't really accomplish that. It's not that the Muslim Brotherhood is unbeatable; when Egyptian voters have a choice, Brotherhood candidates sometimes lose. Their man, Mohamed Morsy, is president, but he only drew a quarter of the vote in the first round of a hotly-contested election, and in the runoff, he barely defeated Ahmad Shafik, Mubarak's right hand man. To win that second round, he needed support from millions of non-Islamist voters who chose him because he represented a viable alternative to continuation of the old regime.
And until the young protesters and the broader non-Islamist camp offer an alternative that voters can understand and accept, they will have more defeats ahead.
Hani Sabra is an analyst in Eurasia Group's Middle East practice. Willis Sparks is an analyst in the firm's Global Macro practice.
GIANLUIGI GUERCIA/AFP/Getty Images
By Carroll Colley
While Russia will enter the WTO in late August, U.S. industry will be left on the sidelines until Congress removes the Cold War-era impediment to greater trade between the former foes. But it's a safe bet that Congress won't graduate Russia from the Jackson-Vanik amendment, which is necessary to grant permanent normal trade relations to Russia and take advantage of its accession to the WTO, before the November election. The reason? Russia is perpetually steeped in controversy, and U.S.-Russia relations have become a campaign issue in the race between Republican Mitt Romney and President Barack Obama. U.S. industry likely won't be able to take advantage of greater market access in Russia until the lame-duck session at the end of the year, and possibly later.
The White House is much more focused on November 6 (Election Day) than August 23 (the approximate date of Russia's WTO entry). Only after repeated requests from Republican lawmakers for senior level officials to testify on the Hill -- widely viewed as a Republican maneuver to force the administration to speak on the record about its Russian policy -- did the administration relent by sending the duo of Deputy Secretary of State William Burns and U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk to testify before the House Ways and Means Committee and the Senate Finance Committee. The White House calculates that a "yes" vote on graduating Russia from Jackson-Vanik (a 1974 provision that ties trade relations to freedom of emigration and other human rights considerations) would have little electoral upside, and might even harm Obama before the election.
Obama's meeting on June 18 with President Vladimir Putin on the margins of the G20 in Los Cabos seemingly failed to produce a breakthrough on Syrian policy. Headlines about ongoing arms shipments bound for Syria and the potential for continued Russian intransigence at the U.N. Security Council also represent potential political liabilities during the election home stretch, not to mention a host of domestic political issues. Romney, meanwhile, has called Russia the U.S.'s greatest political "enemy" -- and later changing that description to "foe" -- because he senses a potential weakness in an Obama foreign policy that has otherwise produced several notable successes.
It would be much simpler, politically, if supporters of graduating Russia from Jackson-Vanik could cast it as a vote for American business, as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton did in a recent opinion piece. But they can't. Passage is complicated by the Magnitsky bill, human rights legislation that targets government officials involved in the case of Sergei Magnitsky, a Russian lawyer who died in police custody in 2009. Largely viewed as a replacement for Jackson-Vanik, the stated aim of the bill is to deny visas to corrupt officials, freeze any U.S. accounts they have, and publish their names. The reality is that the Obama administration last summer instituted its own visa ban and any potential offenders have long ago transferred any funds from the U.S.. The net effect of the bill, therefore, is the "naming of names," which would represent a significant embarrassment to the Putin regime. The bill enjoys broad bipartisan support, with a number of lawmakers stating publicly that passage of the Magnitsky bill is a prerequisite for their vote on Jackson-Vanik.
The Obama administration has sent contradictory messages about its support for the Magnitsky bill. While originally opposing the bill, the administration seems to have accepted the inevitable and has been working with its primary author, Democratic Sen. Ben Cardin of Maryland. One recent Senate version provides for the public list as well as a confidential annex, which would largely allow the administration to circumvent the thrust of the bill by invoking national security exemptions. This is strongly opposed by a number of senior lawmakers, including Sen. John McCain, who was a co-sponsor of the effort to repeal Jackson-Vanik on the caveat of corresponding passage of the Magnitsky bill.
As the August recess rapidly approaches, the window for graduating Russia from Jackson-Vanik prior to its WTO accession closes. Obama appears to have little room to maneuver in expending political capital on the matter without raising the risk of elevating Russia-and its collateral baggage including Syria, Georgia, Iran, and domestic protests-to a legitimate campaign issue. Unless Congress moves forward on its own prerogative-which appears unlikely-the repeal of Jackson-Vanik won't get passed before November, or later, leaving the world's largest economy unable to take advantage of the accession of the WTO's newest member.
Carroll Colley is the director of Eurasia Group’s Eurasia practice.
By Ayham Kamel
It may be tempting to view the plethora of recent gatherings -- the Arab League summit, the U.S.-Gulf Cooperation Council Strategic Cooperation Forum, and the Friends of Syria conference -- as evidence that the global community is getting more serious about addressing the violence in Syria. But the summits really just exposed the rifts among the relevant players that will prevent a viable and coordinated response. Syrian President Bashar al Assad, in turn, will profit from the lack of coherence; he will only nominally entertain Kofi Annan's peace plan as he maintains his grip on power, and the bloodshed will worsen.
International powers remain hesitant regarding any form of direct intervention. They considered initiatives calling for buffer or humanitarian zones, but ultimately no country seems prepared to act. Key powers appear to be pursuing their distinct policies, with only a hint of coordination.
Saudi Arabia and Qatar will provide extensive support -- including arms -- to the Syrian opposition, but are unlikely to supply the heavy arms that would lead to an immediate change in the balance of power. Heavy arms are more difficult to smuggle and training rebels would be much more challenging than during the Libyan conflict. Moreover, the escalation could provoke an un-calculated response from Assad's military. While their interests differ, the two powers see Assad's survival as a threat to their influence. Riyadh's purpose is to limit Iran's regional influence. Meanwhile, Doha has invested significant diplomatic and political capital in the struggle against Assad and any failure to deliver would represent a tangible setback to its prestige. Behind the armament policy is also a deep concern that if Assad regains control, Damascus and Tehran would aim to destabilize the al Saud and al Thani ruling families' grip on power.
Arming the rebels, who have had trouble obtaining ammunition sine the regime began its extensive military campaign in early February, will provide much needed psychological support and will help weaken Assad's forces. While the resolve of Syria's opposition will not abate, arms from the Gulf will neither arrive overnight nor will they immediately change the balance of military power, which is still heavily tilted in the regime's favor. An equally important element of the Gulf strategy is providing monetary incentives to officers in the Syrian army to incite defections. But Assad has built multiple safeguards to prevent defections, a tactic he inherited from his father.
The U.S. is willing to overlook, perhaps even support, GCC efforts to weaken Assad. But Washington is definitely not interested in playing an active role. It is concerned about Saudi Arabia's and Lebanon's support of Salafist rebels and al Qaeda leader Ayman al Zawahiri's call for jihad in Syria. While Sunni monarchies in the Gulf benefit from rising sectarianism in Syria, the U.S. interest in long-term regional stability could be compromised if the Sunni-Shia confrontations spread to Iraq and other countries. U.S. officials believe that a political settlement will be needed to prevent prolonged instability. Verbal support for the Annan process is a reflection of the desire to keep negotiations open, but U.S. officials are convinced that under current conditions the Annan plan will only enable Assad to retain power.
Assad will probably not implement key elements of the Annan peace plan, which calls for a halt of hostilities from all sides, and a negotiated settlement between the regime and the opposition. The regime views cooperation with the UN envoy as a way to secure the successes achieved by its military strategy and to gain some breathing space. While Annan is a shrewd diplomat, there are few reasons to think that success is in reach. Syria's opposition will probably not negotiate with Assad or agree to a settlement that keeps him in power. Meanwhile, there are no indications that the Lion of Damascus has reached a point where he would accept his own ouster.
Ayham Kamel is an analyst in Eurasia Group's Middle East and North Africa practice.
Mohammed Ameen-Pool/Getty Images
By Hani Sabra and Willis Sparks
Some of the outsiders inspired by last year's protests in Tahrir Square and the power of ordinary Egyptians to oust their long-time dictator expressed surprise when the country's transitional government began in December to target prominent NGOs as agents of foreign (read Western) governments. They shouldn't be. So far, the great lesson of Egypt's ongoing "transition" is that it remains awfully hard for old dogs to learn new tricks.
Egyptian authorities are now prosecuting more than 40 people for operating NGOs without licenses and for receiving "illegal foreign funding." Among the accused are 19 Americans, including the Washington-based International Republican Institute's Sam LaHood, son of U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood.
The case is but one example of how far Egypt's revolution has unraveled. A year ago, after Hosni Mubarak's exit, even those Egyptian activists least willing to trust the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) believed that the generals understood that the country could not continue as it had for six decades, that power had to be shared, and that democracy demands much more than the conduct of hastily arranged elections.
The activists, and the rest of the country, watched the generals leap aboard the "January 25 Revolution" bandwagon and salute the struggle's young martyrs. Protesters believed they had an unspoken understanding with SCAF that the military would retain some political influence -- and some of the commercial assets they had amassed over the years -- in exchange for a willingness to pass political power to a pluralist civilian government following a period of transition, to reform state institutions, and to respect the rights of citizens to organize.
In the months that followed, minds changed and understandings evaporated. When the military killed more than two dozen Egyptian Christian activists in October, the illusion was publicly shattered. Clashes between activists and security forces in November and December upped the stakes. As 2011 drew to a close, it became clear that SCAF generals, who first rose to prominence via the intensity of their loyalty to Hosni Mubarak, shared their former leader's authoritarian worldview.
Over the course of 2011, SCAF froze out the protest leaders and struck a separate deal with the Muslim Brotherhood, one that gives various Islamist parties a dominant position in crafting Egypt's domestic policy while leaving the army in charge of foreign policy and key segments of Egypt's economy. Islamist parties, including the Muslim Brotherhood, won about two-thirds of seats in recent parliamentary elections. The protesters, now marginalized, are becoming more confrontational.
The crackdown on NGOs reveals the understandings that are implicit in the Muslim Brotherhood-SCAF understanding. Credible allegations have emerged that Islamist groups have received foreign funding too, from Gulf Arab countries, but SCAF has taken virtually no action against them. It's the groups that lobby for human rights -- and who have criticized SCAF -- that have been targeted.
If these NGOs have indeed broken laws, they are Mubarak-era laws. SCAF has changed the rules on elections and the formation of political parties, but their unwillingness to tolerate civil society shows the limits of their willingness to change.
The generals' inflexibility bodes ill for Egypt's future. The Brotherhood, eager to finally enjoy a share of formal power, has become the army's enthusiastic partner. But neither group appears to recognize that elections alone will not guarantee stability. Their broader public popularity and the power of state television ensure that, especially outside of Egypt's largest cities, the military and Muslim Brotherhood represent the "silent majority."
But the vocal minority will keep pushing back, and the potential for violence is on the rise.
Hani Sabra is an analyst in Eurasia Group's Middle East practice. Willis Sparks is an analyst in the firm's Global Macro practice.
Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images
By Hani Sabra
As President Hosni Mubarak recovers from gallbladder removal surgery in Germany, he's probably
spending some time thinking about former IAEA director Mohamed ElBaradei. A day
before his operation, Mubarak commented on ElBaradei's potential presidential
candidacy and said that Egypt does "not need a new national hero." That's a
significant statement considering that the 81-year-old president usually lets
his subordinates respond to issues like this one. Mubarak's sharp comments
indicate that ElBaradei's recent rhetoric has clearly unsettled him. And
looking ahead, the political temperature in Egypt will get increasingly hotter
between now and 2011, when presidential elections are scheduled to take place.
First, some context: As things stand now, ElBaradei actually can't run for president. He must be one of the leaders of a "recognized" political party in order to participate. When Mubarak engineered constitutional amendments in 2007, they were designed to ensure that members of "unrecognized" parties like the Muslim Brotherhood would be unable to field independent candidates in elections -- as it did with great success in the 2005 parliamentary elections. ElBaradei prefers to run as an independent, and he is wary of the baggage attached to being identified with one of the ineffectual "legal" parties. Given this, and the fact that the Egyptian authorities will almost certainly not heed ElBaradei's call for constitutional amendments that would make it easier for him to run, ElBaradei is unlikely to enter the presidential race in 2011. Even if he does join a party and somehow manages to participate, an opposition candidate stands virtually no chance of victory. Mubarak will likely run and will certainly win if he does. Meanwhile, his son Gamal will continue to raise his profile and likely take the reins when his father dies. (The longer that Mubarak lives, the less chance that aging security establishment figures like Omar Suleiman have to become president.)
Still, ElBaradei isn't just a passing fad. Mubarak can't simply imprison him a la Ayman Nour. He's a Nobel Peace Prize winner, and his mistreatment would put Egypt under a great deal of unwanted pressure and scrutiny. At the very least, ElBaradei will continue to be a thorn in the government's side. And since returning to Egypt for vacation last week, he has gone on the offensive. Despite almost certainly receiving calls from friendly ruling National Democratic Party members telling him to cool it, ElBaradei has refused to temper his statements about Egypt's calcified political system. He has met with his supporters and heavyweights like Arab League Secretary General Amr Moussa (who was previously Egypt's popular foreign minister) and continues to talk about what he perceives as Egypt's failings because of its authoritarian political system. ElBaradei will continue to be a popular force in Egyptian politics. But several thousand Facebook fans do not make him a viable presidential candidate.
Hani Sabra is a Middle East analyst at Eurasia Group.
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The Call, from Ian Bremmer, uses cutting-edge political science to predict the political future -- and how it will shape the global economy.