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 Eurasia Group's Middle East practice
Egyptians are hardly the only people in the Arab world burdened with an economic system that provides them few opportunities and a political system designed to frustrate their aspirations. Just as upheaval in Tunisia captured the imaginations of Egyptians, so the rest of the Arab world is watching as protection of privilege collides with demand for change in the heart of Cairo. Particularly if Hosni Mubarak is forced from power, other authoritarian regimes in the region will be at risk. The most vulnerable are Jordan, Yemen, Algeria, and Bahrain.
In Jordan, the only other Arab government to sign a peace treaty with Israel, King Abdullah faces a serious surge of dissent. His regime is not yet at risk, but if Egyptian protesters are able to force Mubarak from power, Jordan's opposition will demand fundamental and immediate political reform. In recent weeks, thousands of protesters have demonstrated against economic conditions and the monarch's monopoly hold on political power. Abdullah responded by sacking unpopular Prime Minister Samir Rifai and replacing him with Marouf Bakhit, a loyal member of the country's East Bank elite and most recently the king's special advisor on security issues.
Jordan's Muslim Brotherhood has much broader and deeper public support than its counterpart in Egypt. In addition, divisions between Jordan's royal family and tribal leaders on one side and Jordanians of Palestinian descent on the other are growing. The country's large gap between rich and poor and the government's unwillingness to tolerate dissent make Jordan a country to watch if things in Egypt get much worse.
Yemen's stability faces even greater challenges. Its government faces a secessionist movement in the south, a dormant conflict with Houthi rebels in the north, and al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. In most of the country, the Yemeni government is not fully in charge. Unlike the spontaneous uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia, recent protests in Yemen have been organized by the country's largest opposition movement. But if angry, unemployed youth decide to join the protests, Yemen's government could find itself in real trouble.
Like Hosni Mubarak, Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh has been in power for more than 30 years. And like Mubarak, he has moved to limit pressure on his government by declaring on Wednesday that he won't run for another term in 2013 and won't pass the presidency to his son, Ahmed. It remains to be seen whether these concessions will be enough to deflect calls for his immediate resignation.
Pressure is also mounting on the Algerian government. Long-standing economic and political grievances have fueled a recent burst of public unrest, and in the wake of the events in Tunisia and Egypt, opposition parties and civil society organizations have shifted their demands from economic to political reform. About 70 percent of Algerians are under the age of 25, and the majority of young men are unemployed. A few government officials and businessmen control the vast majority of the proceeds from the country's oil wealth. Widespread demonstrations could upset the delicate balance of the country's political and economic structure and possibly provoke divisions within the ruling elite over how to respond.
As in all these
countries, President Abdelaziz Bouteflika has offered concessions intended to
bolster his popularity, including an offer on Thursday to end a 19-year state
of emergency in the country. Public calls for political freedoms and possibly
early elections will dominate an opposition march scheduled for Feb. 12,
and uncertainty over who and what will follow Bouteflika will create tremendous
political uncertainty. If the unrest can't be managed, it's possible that key
military figures will abandon Bouteflika or that junior officers might move
against the old guard.
Finally, public frustration in Bahrain, a majority Shiite country ruled by a Sunni monarch, could reach the boiling point if the al-Khalifa family cannot tamp down recent sectarian tensions. Bahrain saw significant unrest last summer and fall in the run-up to parliamentary elections, and Shiite youth clashed with Sunni security forces in nightly riots. There's also a small risk that Iran would exploit further confrontations by providing material support to Bahrain's Shiite population. That's a move that would have serious repercussions for security across the region.
Ayham Kamel, Mohammed El-Katiri, Hani Sabra, and James Fallon are analysts in Eurasia Group's Middle East practice.
Salah Malkawi/Getty Images
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