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 Hani Sabra
Ballot counting continues as Egypt's first round of elections, in which a third of the country voted, comes to a close. We now know that the Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party, with the weight of an 83-year old organization behind it, will come out on top. But the real surprise has been the success of the more hardline, ultraconservative Salafi Nour (Light) Party. Nour could capture roughly a quarter of the seats in the first round, and there's no reason to believe that it can't replicate that performance in the upcoming two rounds.
Nour's success unsettles many moderate Egyptian Muslims, liberals, and Christians who fret about the potential impact on their personal lives. How will an Islamist-dominated parliament approach banking, tourism, and foreign investment? But Nour has probably unsettled the Muslim Brotherhood too. The upstart Salafis, who until recently did not participate in politics -- many of them still say that democracy is "kufr" (non-belief) -- have encroached on the Muslim Brotherhood's traditional territory. Thus, an increasingly critical question in post-Hosni Mubarak Egypt is not how the liberals will fare against the Islamists; that's already been answered. Rather, it is: Who wins the right to speak for Egypt's Islamists?
There are roughly three main Islamist political trends in Egypt, and together they will form a supermajority in parliament. The Muslim Brotherhood represents the right-wing, conservative, pragmatic wing of the movement. The rising Salafis represent the more reactionary, uncompromising wing, and parties like Al-Wasat (The Center), who will be by far the smallest Islamist party in parliament, represent a third trend that seeks to emulate Turkey's ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP). The three groups have legitimate reasons to believe they can seize the Islamist mantle and settle the question of who speaks for Islam.
With their electoral success and their unparalleled organizational skills, the Muslim Brotherhood is in a strong, but delicate, position. It remains unlikely that Egypt will have an Islamist-only parliamentary coalition, and electoral success strengthens the Brotherhood's hand with non-Islamists parties, because it allows the Brotherhood essentially to dictate the terms of any parliamentary coalition that excludes Salafis. Non-Islamist parties may dislike the Brotherhood, but they understand that its leadership is essentially pragmatic and unlikely to introduce radical changes that impact the economy or peoples' personal lives in the short term. The Brotherhood leadership has spokesmen who shave their beards and talk up the need for foreign investment. It also includes a senior Christian member.
But the Brotherhood has to move carefully and can ill afford to alienate the Salafis. For rank-and-file Brotherhood members, the line between a Brother and a Salafi is blurry. It's almost certain that potential FJP voters chose Salafi candidates or parties at the ballot box. And more Brothers could jump ship if the Salafis illustrate that they better represent "true Islam."
The Brotherhood is in a complicated position, trying to hew to the right in the provinces, while behaving "moderately" in Cairo and outside Egypt. In some cases, the Salafis and the Brotherhood will collaborate, but it will likely be a more competitive (and unpredictable) relationship.
Hani Sabra is an analyst in Eurasia Group's Middle East practice.
AMRO MARAGHI/AFP/Getty Images
By David Bender
Earlier this week, just as Iraq seemed to be finally settling on a new prime minister -- the incumbent, Nouri al-Maliki -- the Washington Post reported a largely overlooked but telling development: the Ministry of Interior had stripped hundreds of police officers in Anbar province of their rank. The problem is that these weren't just any cops: they are Sunnis and former members of the Awakening Councils, paramilitary forces once backed by the United States that had helped turn the tide of the insurgency in 2007 when they turned their guns on al Qaeda.
Now would seem a very strange time for the Iraqi government to be abandoning the Awakening, given that al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) has lately shown some signs of reconstituting itself. But the dismissals are not about security. Rather, they're indicative of the current (and likely next) government's inability to envision a place for Sunnis in Iraq's future. And they're a sign of the fundamental sectarian dysfunction that is likely to define Iraqi politics and society for years to come.
When Sunnis in western Iraq agreed to stop shooting at U.S. Marines and start fighting AQI in 2007, the United States was more than happy to welcome them with money and weapons. Using the Awakening Councils to help combat al Qaeda was a critical element of General David Petraeus's strategy ending Iraq's civil war by making the Sunnis part of the solution rather than problem. The gambit was a big success in reversing the tide of the war, but it gradually raised fears among the Shia. Decades of repression under Sunni-dominated governments and the military had helped convince many of the newly empowered Shia leaders that the well-armed and battle-tested Awakening Councils might eventually become a base for a Sunni renaissance. These Shia leaders went along with an American plan to start integrating the Awakening Councils into the Iraqi police and military starting in 2008, but only grudgingly; and few of the government jobs that were promised to Sunni fighters in recent years have materialized.
Having boycotted the 2005 elections, Sunnis participated fully in last March's vote, turning out en masse for Iraqiyya, a nonsectarian political alliance led by former Prime Minister Iyad Allawi, a secular Shia (who, once upon a time, was also a Baathist, although he turned against the party in the 1970s and Saddam Hussein tried to have him killed with an axe). Iraqiyya won more seats in the election that either Maliki's (nominally nonsectarian but actually largely Shia) State of Law or the Shia sectarian Iraqi National Alliance (INA). But Sunnis saw their preferences ignored when the two Shia coalitions formally merged and declared themselves the largest political bloc in parliament. Now Allawi and the Sunnis are trapped on the sidelines and forced to watch as Shia kingmakers decide who will lead the next government.
That person -- and it seems extremely likely to be Maliki -- will have to choose how to handle the Sunnis. On the one hand, there's no question it would help stabilize Iraq if he made a genuine effort to reach out to the Sunnis and give that disenfranchised community meaningful political influence and a role in the next government. But a combination of an almost implacable Shia fear of a Sunni resurgence and a sense that, after centuries of repression, this is the Shia's moment means that bold outreach is unlikely. Instead, some Sunni groups may be bought off in order to give the next government a veneer of sectarian diversity but little more.
The big question is how will the Sunnis respond? Should they decide they have no stake in the success of the next government, what will be their next move? Sunnis could cease their security cooperation with Baghdad, but a return to the sort of civil war we saw between 2005 and 2007 is unlikely. The Iraqi government of today, for all its problems, is significantly more stable than it was in 2005, and Iraqi security forces are dramatically more capable. Still, parallel efforts -- not cooperation but a sharing of similar goals -- by disaffected Sunnis and an AQI looking to reconstitute -- could keep Baghdad and Iraq's west violent and unstable for years to come.
David Bender is a Middle East Analyst at Eurasia Group.
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