Monday, February 14, 2011

The Arab World: What Next?

(EDIT: Lebanon section edited for clarity.)

Let's review: we've gotten revolution in Tunisia and Egypt, South Sudan voting in favor of independence, with steps, or attempted steps, towards similar ends, with varying degrees of success, in Yemen, Jordan, Algeria, Morocco, Syria. The Guardian adds Saudi Arabia, Oman, Iraq, Lebanon and Mauritania to the list. Bahrain and Iran look to be next to try, Iran for the second time. Kuwait is in the planning stages. Niger, while not experiencing protests, is in the middle of an election that, given its current direction, looks to throw out their current administration as well.

In short, the entire Middle Eastern and North African power structure is in the process of being blown up and rebuilt from scratch.

This is far from the first time the world has seen a region undergo such upheaval in short order. Europe has seen it several times- the rise of nation-states in the late 1700's, the era after the Treaty of Versailles, the post-Soviet era complete with Balkanization. South America saw it during the days of Simon Bolivar, and then again in the mid-2000's in what Hugo Chavez called the 'Pink Tide'. Africa did the same when, one by one, their various nations threw off colonialism. This is not a new thing.

However, it's one thing for an entire region to mutually decide that they don't like their respective leaders. It is another thing entirely for them to then agree on what direction to take going forward, or to actually pull it off.

Surely, it can actually work out that way. The Pink Tide saw Latin America shift mutually to the left; it had to have been one of Hugo Chavez's proudest moments. However, at the same time, Africa saw results that scattered across the ideological map. Sometimes things got better. Sometimes they got worse. Sometimes they got better only after a long struggle. Sometimes the new leaders became visionaries, but more often, the new leaders had learned too many lessons from the colonialists.

So that's the question: where do we go from here? In what direction, or directions, are we going to see the Middle East and North Africa progress?

In order to answer, we're at least going to have to give lip service to the possibility, however remote it may seem, that each and every country will undergo change in leadership. Remember, nobody saw Tunisia or Egypt coming. We don't know what else will flip, so for our purposes, let's assume that they all do. If you over the years haven't been able to tell one Middle Eastern situation from another, now is a good time to get yourself calibrated.

Running through the region in alphabetical order...

ALGERIA: Algeria's current head is Abdelaziz Bouteflika, though that basic fact is not without controversy; the constitution was altered in 2008 to remove term limits, and the ensuing election was marred by boycotts and fraud allegations. Poverty and unemployment have driven the protests we're now seeing.

Were these protests to succeed, the biggest opposition group is the Socialist Forces Front, with their leader being Karim Tabou, but he's stepped back from some of the protests, and that might cost him. The most likely name in Tabou's absence would be Said Sadi of the Rally for Culture and Democracy, viewed to be more of a liberal and secular group than the current leadership. Unfortunately, not much else is available about them. Sadi would thus be something of a wild card in the specifics.

BAHRAIN: Things haven't progressed very far in Bahrain yet, and aren't seen as likely to, as Bahrain is seen as already somewhat freer than the rest of the area. That reputation has recently taken a bit of a battering, however, leaving the ruling Khalifa family open to protests, which have been responded to with tear gas and rubber bullets. The main name to look at here is opposition leader Abduljalil al-Singace, who was arrested last August on charges of trying to overthrow the government, a charge that could carry the death penalty. As of now he remains in jail, or more accurately, the hospital, as he recently suffered a heart attack. Were an overthrow to succeed, odds are high that, health permitting, he would be quickly released and asked to run for, if not be appointed to, a leadership position.

Abduljalil al-Singace was, prior to his arrest, a mechanical engineering professor at the University of Bahrain, as well as a director of the Human Rights Bureau of the Haq Movement for Civil Liberties and Democracy, a Shi'ite-backed faction that suffered a roundup alongside him in August and has reportedly endured torture during their detention. The current leadership is Sunni, giving a theological undertone to this particular incidence. This has historically been the norm in the Middle East, but religion has not been the driving factor in this particular wave of protests, making Bahrain a bit of an outlier. (For those unclear on the difference between Sunni and Shi'a, the poor man's version is to consider Sunnis as a Muslim equivalent to Protestants, and Shi'a as a Muslim equivalent to Catholics. Here's the middle-class version, and the rich man's. A change to Shi'a leadership, all other things being equal, would probably shift Bahrain right, and as the Haq movement is seen as somewhat hardline, along with most of the rest of Shi'a-majority Bahrain, this is probably what would happen in not only an al-Singace administration, but any change at the top.

EGYPT: Obviously, we don't need to assume there will be change here. The military is currently caretaking, having just disbanded parliament and restored Tahrir Square to usable condition, and they are respected among the Egyptians. The question is, who will be in charge in the long term, assuming it's not the military.

Until recently, the answer to that seemed to be Nobel Peace Prize winner Mohamed ElBaradei; however, his failure to take a more central role in the overthrow caused him to lose clout and has essentially taken him out of the race. A straw poll last week by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy showed him at a mere 3%, well back of the leading 26% garnered by Amr Moussa, which is even worse for ElBaradei when one considers that Omar Suleiman and Hosni Mubarak came in second and third in the same poll.

Amr Moussa is thus who we need to examine. He is a former foreign minister of Mubarak's, and recently stepped down as secretary-general of the Arab League in order to run for the office. When he left the Mubarak administration in 2001, the thought was that Mubarak had seen a potential rival and pushed him out. He would not be a clean break from the Mubarak era, though, and his outspoken criticism of Israel makes it likely that Israel could not count on Egypt to refrain from hostilities. He also faces charges of corruption and favoritism towards loyalists from his days in the Arab League. Support for him as leader is plurality, though by no means would be declared leader by acclimation or given an endless amount of rope were he to take the helm.

IRAQ: Years of war, an elected government that failed to meet for six months, and corruption pervasive even after it did meet has led to a country that lacks almost any services whatsoever, as this Al-Jazeera video reports. The Iraqi people will more or less take any government that can restore the nation's infrastructure, and who they won't have to bribe to do it. That means current Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki would have to go, and he has pledged not to seek another term.

His main opposition in the December election was Ayad Allawi, and if there were to be upheaval in Iraq, it's reasonable to think Allawi, a more secular personality (both he and al-Maliki are Shi'ite), would be the natural next man up. His reputation is as a man who can wield influence more effectively than al-Maliki, who has largely struggled to cope. That can of course go too far in the other direction- this Washington Post article uses the term "iron fist"- and despite spending years, decades, putting together an ultimately unsuccessful coup attempt against Saddam Hussein, he was still once part of the Baath Party, and that fact gave the Maliki camp the opening to turn the election into a Bush/Gore redux, the hard feelings of which have evidently boiled over.

The question here is, is Allawi's iron-fist reputation what is needed to bring Iraq back out of the abyss, or does he become merely one more dictator and herald the return of the Baaths. There's only one way to truly find out.

IRAN: We've been through this story before, and the names have not changed. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad remains at the helm; Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi, who are calling the protests, remain on the outside looking in. Protesters in Iran are wary of the potential outcome of a second attempt, as are most observers, but they have begun to restart the effort. Assuming success, almost any outcome with Mousavi or Karroubi in charge- most likely Mousavi- would be viewed, internally and externally, as an improvement on the current situation. As the two are pegged as moderates to Ahmadinejad's hardline stance, this would almost certainly be the case.

JORDAN: Current leadership in Jordan is King Abdullah and Queen Rania; by Jordanian law it is illegal to say a bad word about either of them. Abroad, the law does not apply, though foreign mouths have nonetheless found little bad to say about the two, particularly Queen Rania, who is arguably one of the world's most universally respected foreign heads of state.

Keyword, foreign. Domestically, the couple has come under fire due to overseeing Jordan's flagging economy- Moody's recently downgraded their credit rating to junk status- and by Rania's involvement in politics in general; she has been accused by a consortium of 36 Jordanian tribes of overflaunting of wealth and of "building power centres for her own interests."

In response, Abdullah dismissed and reformed parliament, the new version of which has pledged a substantial reform package led by new parliamentary head Marouf Bakhit, and for many, that's good enough, but for some, it's not. These people, primarily Islamist but with a left-wing tinge, want straight elections. The tribes alone, meanwhile, don't want Abdullah gone, but they do want Rania gone, or at least silenced.

Which makes it difficult to pinpoint who would take the helm. Rania's departure would ultimately rest on Abdullah's decision to divorce her, and considering that the accusation of corruption has been dismissed by the royal court as not representative of the tribes, that does not appear to be happening. Were these tribes to gain control somehow, they skew hardline conservative, and are resentful of Jordan being something of a safe haven for Palestinians, who make up the majority of the country, and as Rania shares that ethnicity, she has received criticism for this as well. The tribes do not want Palestinians having that safe haven before a Palestinian state is restored, feeling that failing to do so would just let Israel use Jordan as the solution to their own mutually-exclusive problems.

KUWAIT: The Interior Minister, Sheikh Jaber Al-Khaled al-Sabah, stepped down as a response to Kuwaiti protestation over corruption and curtailing of freedoms. Shikh Jaber in particular has taken blame for the torture death of a Kuwaiti man. The fact that his replacement, Shikh Ahmed a-Hamoud al-Sabah, is a cousin of the emir does not help matters.

The main opposition group, Fifth Fence, has decided to put off protests until March 8 as a measure of acceptance of the resignation, but will continue their efforts. Their demands are that the entire government go, including Sheikh Nasser Mohammed al Sabah. Fifth Fence is a youth group backed by some parliamentary opposition; however, not much past that is known about them. Kuwaiti parliamentary law permits any member of parliament to officially question any other member of parliament, including the Prime Minister, and as Kuwait's parliament has a reputation for action and rowdiness, any number of people could take a leadership role. None have really gotten out ahead of the pack, and it's simply too early to figure out who might.

LEBANON: Lebanon just went through a revolution, the Cedar Revolution, in 2005. The Revolution occurred in the wake of the assassination of then-Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, and forced Syrian troops out of the country and, it was thought, brought four collaborators in his death to justice, which is something the Lebanese rarely expected of people in power. However, the revolutionary sentiments faded quickly, culminating in the 2009 release of those same suspects, who had never been charged with anything, as ordered by The Hague.

In Syria's wake, Hezbollah has filled the void, and Lebanon has become a virtual playground of proxy maneuvers by the United States and Iran, larger regional players, and Syria has even partially returned through their support of Hezbollah. Hezbollah's major act has been to stifle the investigations, fearful that some of their own might be held accountable. Hariri's son, Saad, now finds himself in the opposition after his unity government lost power last month.

This is from where Lebanon's current protests stem. Hariri is the obvious choice to retake power should a regime change come about, and the obvious first step for him would be to give the investigations a fresh head of steam. One would think the sentiments of the Cedar Revolution would be restored to some degree, but as it faltered once, one should also be skeptical of it taking the second time.

LIBYA: Colonel Muammar Qaddafi has been around since 1969, a known quantity to everyone from the Reagan administration on. With revolutions next door on both sides, a Libyan "Day of Rage," scheduled for Thursday, was to be expected. It is also expected that Qaddafi will fiercely contest it, as he has contested any other question to his control. A recent Wikileaks cable details the situation.

As Qaddafi has been in power for so long in an iron-fisted dictatorial fashion, like Tunisia, opposition figures are difficult to pinpoint at first glance. Any revolutionary figures have long since been driven underground or into exile, and all are thought of as weak on their own. It will take time to see if a leader emerges, but as of now, the opposition is too decentralized to declare a leader or a potential successor.

MAURITANIA: Mauritania has seen action from without and within. From without, president Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz was unsuccessfully targeted on February 2nd by an assassination attempt; al-Qaeda has claimed credit. From within, Yacoub Ould Dahoud set himself on fire in protest of the government; he died five days later in a Moroccan hospital. Such an action would raise eyebrows anywhere, but in Mauritania, suicide is almost unheard of, giving Dahoud's actions that much extra weight on the public consciousness.

However, Abdul Aziz's presence has evidently turned suicide into an option in Mauritania; in 2009, three days after Abdul Aziz claimed power in a disputed election, Mauritania witnessed its first-ever suicide bombing, and public reaction fell along the lines that, while the attack was regrettable, that doesn't excuse Abdul Aziz. He is a deeply controversial figure, having led two separate coups in 2005 and 2008.

The consequences of al-Qaeda having their pick of leader in Mauritania are obvious, but there is a formal opposition as well, the Rally of Democratic Forces, led by Ahmad Ould Daddah. Daddah supported the 2008 coup, but was against anyone who took part in it running for leadership positions. Were he to take power, and were Abdul Aziz to stay away this time, not much of his platform is available, but we can speculate based on the company the RDF keeps. the RDF is a member of Socialist International, a group of political parties worldwide that also includes, among others, the Australian Labor Party, the United Kingdom's Labour Party, Canada's New Democratic Party, and Zimbabwe's Movement for Democratic Change, the last of which is the party occupied by Morgan Tsvangirai.

MOROCCO: Moroccan leadership, headed by a royal family led by King Mohammed VI, made a pledge to add 250,000 jobs from 2008-12. They are not on pace to get anywhere in the ballpark of 250,000, and with a history of brutal repression of dissent, the royal family has been left vulnerable to being one more domino in the rally. While Morocco is not seen as likely to fall, if it does, dissident journalist Aboubakr Jamai is quoted as saying ""If Morocco goes up, the disparities in wealth are such that the rebellion will be much bloodier than in Tunisia."

Meanwhile, in Western Sahara, a Moroccan-occupied region south of the nation proper, there sit the Saharawis, organized into the Polisario Front. Or rather, they sit in refugee camps in Algeria, as while they had lived in Western Sahara until a civil war in the 1970's drove them out, in 1982 Morocco began placing more and more of Western Sahara behind berms- low sand-wall fortifications, armed and protected with a variety of ordinance up to and including landmines- until 1987, when they had claimed virtually all areas of value. (We've previously gone into this in more detail last May.) The Saharawis are left watching two separate potential revolutions, Algeria's and Morocco's, and trying to figure out if they should help out in one, the other, both, or to stand pat and hope for the best.

Under the right circumstances, a sufficiently-preoccupied Morocco could allow the Saharawis to make a break for it and attempt a bid for independence, taking their land back from the berms. The Moroccans would, however, have to be deeply, deeply preoccupied.

Meanwhile, in Morocco itself, the largest opposition group seems to be Justice and Charity, an Islamist group made up chiefly of the young and poor. They seek a pluralist system inspired by Islam. Their longtime leader is Abdesslam Yassine, and he would seem the natural poster boy were Justice and Charity to take the reins. However, Yassine does not seek Mohammed's ouster, only the dilution of his power, which would result in a more decentralized state with a semblance of checks and balances. Yassine, deeply spiritual, has not shown any signs of potential violence; he rose to prominence through letters sent to Mohammed VI and his predecessor, Hassan II. Hassan responded by committing him to a mental hospital.

NIGER: While there aren't any protests here, there is an election going on, brought on after Mamadou Tandja, who had attempted to abolish term limits, was deposed by the military in February 2010. A runoff is scheduled for March, with Mahamadou Issoufou taking 36.1% of the vote and Seini Oumarou taking 23.2%. Oumarou belongs to the same party Tandja does. Issoufou and Oumarou belong to opposing coalitions in a multiparty system, and while Issoufou's bloc, made up of his and four other parties, now controls 79 of 113 seats in parliament, Oumarou was projected as the favorite in the runoff until Issoufou began to build a solid list of endorsements among the eliminated candidates. Issoufou is now a solid favorite, provided the supporters of those who endorsed him follow the script.

Issoufou has been a mainstay in Nigerien politics since 1993, when Niger first held multiparty elections. It wouldn't be a major change in policy shift- all the candidates ran on similar platforms, as fighting al-Qaeda and trying to manage a 60% poverty rate and inequal distribution of income leaves little time to promise much else- but Issoufou's election would at least be seen as a break from Tandja.

OMAN: Oman has seen food prices rise as of late, and the country shares many of the social prohibitions as the rest of the region, though not as many. There has been one protest; however, that was on January 17, and there's been little if any word about protests in Oman before or since. If Oman were to topple, it would likely be only because there was nothing left to topple. Out of 135 countries, the United Nations Development Programme ranks Oman as the most improved over the past 40 years. But then again, Saudi Arabia ranked 5th, Tunisia ranked 7th, Algeria 9th, and Morocco 10th.

Even so, it's difficult to even identify an opposition group's existence, let alone a leader. Wikipedia identifies the Popular Front for the Liberation of Oman, termed a Marxist group, as having changed its name to the People's Democratic Front of Oman in 1992, but recent activity for groups going by either name could not be unearthed. Even giving the opposition every benefit of the doubt, the ruling Qaboos family appears safe barring further developments.

SAUDI ARABIA: Most observers think that Saudi Arabia's royal family is safe; the country seemed safe enough to ousted Tunisian president Zine al-Abidine ben Ali that he fled there. However, high unemployment among the nation's youth and inequal distribution of wealth, as well as any rare social progress in the nation coming at a glacial pace, has created dissent, and the age of those at the top of the royal family- the top two are both in their 80's- may leave the door open. The next in line, however, is Interior Minister Prince Nayef, and he appears to be more of the same.

While the royal family wouldn't be toppled, a sufficiently powerful youth movement, currently bubbling up on Twitter, may be able to force concessions of power, with some control being given to parliament. Last week, an opposition party was formed, Islamic Umma, which in and of itself is illegal in Saudi Arabia. Any seizure of control would be put towards breaking the gridlock to whatever degree and getting at least some of the proposed social programs implemented. The opposition knows they have the money to do it.

SUDAN: South Sudan has already voted to secede, and emphatically so. However, carrying out that secession appears to be another matter entirely, as South Sudan has the bulk of the Sudanese oil reserves, the revenues from which the north is loathe to lose. As such, violence has broken out. The south is busy trying to cobble together a government in the meantime, but in addition to the north, a variety of southern tribes have created internal strife.

Meanwhile in Khartoum, which remains in the north, president Omar Hassan al-Bashir is under fire for, among other things, allowing the secession to happen. With the oil revenues of the south gone, the north's current economic issues would only be exacerbated.

On February 10, Mariam al-Mahdi, daughter of Sadeq al-Mahdi, who Bashir overthrew in 1989, was arrested and detained. An overthrow of Bashir might result in her ultimately being placed in charge, but gender inequality would more likely favor Hassan al-Turabi, also detained earlier in the year. al-Turabi, though, would possibly face criticism of his own for having previously been in Bashir's administration. Which one takes over would determine whether northern Sudan ultimately skews left, as would be the case with al-Mahdi, or right, as would be the case with al-Turabi.

SYRIA: Facebook, previously banned in Syria for the last five years, has been opened up in an attempt to keep any regime-toppling protests at arm's length. Of course, the flip side to that is that Facebook's opening makes it easier for dissenters to find each other and compare notes; failure to be able to do so was largely attributed as the reason Syria's "day of rage" did not have the same firepower as that of other nations. However, that argument fails to hold water when one considers that Syrians have been able to use them anyway, using proxy servers, including the first lady, Asma al-Assad, who juggles several Facebook pages. When the ban was put in place, Google didn't even notice a significant dip in Syrian traffic. The net effect, thus, is minimal.

That all established, Syrian opposition has a long way to go yet to bring down Bashar al-Assad, who had a large security force out on the "day of rage," just in case. But assuming they pull it off, the Assads come from the Alawi tribe, traditionally minority Shi'a. Prior to the Assads, they were politically impotent, rising to power through cultivation of military influence. This is just about the only way an Alawi could gain power in Syria; they are the most hated ethnic group in the country. The Assads have ruled as could be largely expected of a military power base, with repression and widespread torture.

Thus, any loss of power by the Assads and the Alawis would likely open them up not only to their old persecution, but also to retribution, like a mad scientist that gives life to a creature, mistreats it, and then loses control of it. Who would take their place, though, is uncertain, as few ethnic groups want to be the one to make the first move, many fearful of being left to fend for themselves by the others. Kurdish leader Mustafa Ibrahim, for instance, has stated, "Let the Kurds not be the front-runners of any uprising in Syria, because then the regime will accuse them of separatism and of being backed by external forces. But if the Arabs take the lead and we follow, it will be better for us." Who takes the lead in the short term may determine who takes the lead in the long term. Both questions, however, remain open.

TUNISIA: Regime change here is not in question; Zine al-Abidine ben Ali has long since fled the country. Focus can thus be concentrated on identifying a successor. Germany has pledged support to Tunisia in holding elections and overhauling the judicial system. Who would win such an election, however, is still an open question, to the point where some Tunisians would prefer the six-month timeline be extended to allow more time for people to step forward and organize themselves. One potential candidate is Moncef Marzouki, jailed in 1994 for attempting to run against ben Ali, but he and any other candidate would be starting almost from scratch, as a recent opinion poll- Tunisia's first- shows that Tunisians have little knowledge of political options, with only three parties even being known by more than 20% of people, let alone candidates. General Rachid Ammar is also generating some buzz, and Rachid Ghannouchi, exiled for 22 years, has said he is out. That's about as far as anyone has gotten thus far, however: determining whether they're going to run or not.

YEMEN: Seen as the most likely to topple next, pro- and anti-government forces are in a fierce battle for control that has now gone into the fourth day, with protesters chanting "After Mubarak, Ali." Ali is Ali Abdullah Saleh, the current president, who has been in control since 1978. Reform here may not be enough to stave off a toppling. He has said he wouldn't run for re-election in 2013, but this is a promise he has broken before, and he had until recently been flirting with the abolition of term limits.

After that, however, it's not clear that Yemen would remain united, as the bulk of Ali's opposition comes from southern Yemen, while his allegiances lie north. The two were separate nations until a 1990 merger, under Ali's watch. If and when Ali is ousted, the two may very well reseparate. A civil war is possible, if not probable, and a more likely circumstance than free elections, which would be contested by highly fragmented factions.

And whoever leads a united Yemen would have a group of problems dumped into their lap that would be so much larger than them- water shortages, the oil reserves running dry, rampant poverty and unemployment, al Qaeda operating in their backyard- that it may not matter who wins.

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