Last week reader sent an email asking a number of questions about the impact of the Arab uprisings on the Arab region in terms of the foreign policy of the countries in the region, from the perspective of some one who generally focuses on the Maghreb. Another reader emailed and asked for thoughts on Libya specifically. This is the response to both, not totally coherent (these are areas of generally peripheral interest/knowledge for this blogger) but here is a summary and then a very general thought dump on: Libya, Egypt, Turkey, Iran and regional Islamist movements (some of it is a bit dated, since it was written a week ago). Take it all with a grain of salt.
SUMMARY, SHORT TERM. The Arab uprisings have seriously altered the region’s geopolitical setting. The uprisings have raised the political stakes for Arab governments and publics. Arab elites will face new challenges from emergent counter-elites and political forces. More open domestic political environments in Egypt and Tunisia are very likely to lead to more diverse political scenes in general, and especially within the regional Islamist tendencies. The Gulf states will seek additional security partners to help avoid additional upheaval as seen in Bahrain and will attempt to leverage their economic, religious and cultural influence to moderate and “balance” the political outcomes of uprisings and political processes elsewhere in the region while accentuating a sectarian (Sunni-Shi’i) narrative regarding unrest in the Gulf to gain reassurance from traditional western allies regarding internal security and Iran. The outlook, posture and position of key regional stakeholders has been complicated and rearranged and actors like Turkey and Iran face significant opportunities and challenges and they will be forced to rethink and reconfigure their approaches to exerting public and official influence in the Arab region.
- LIBYA. The Libyan civil war is likely to continue as a stalemate in the short to medium term. The internationalization of the Libyan conflict has extended the life of the rebel movement by placing significant limitations on the technical ability of Tripoli to suppress the uprising. The ambiguous mission assigned to the coalition/NATO in Libya means that the intervention will continue to be halting at the political echelon until significant movement takes place on (by the rebels) or in (from within the regime) Tripoli. The imposition of the No-Fly Zone and the imposition of targeted sanctions significantly raised the stakes for Tripoli by pushing the regime closer into a corner: for a regime whose principal objective is survival at all costs the removal of viable alternatives to a hanging by the masses or trial at the ICC “sticking it out” by all necessary means remains most appealing. Qadhafi likely views waiting out the international coalition his best chance for survival, reasoning that (1) western political establishments lack the will to commit the necessary forces to invade Libya or the areas of Libya under his control and remove him/his regime; (2) the key elements in the coalition lack the political will to continue the NFZ for more than a year, and/or; (3) rebel forces are sufficiently incompetent that Tripoli’s forces can, by force of will, defeat them given the appropriate amount of time. In Qadhafi’s estimation all three of these are likely somewhat exaggerated in comparison to the reality (except perhaps the first point). A division of Libya between Qadhafi-controlled areas and rebel-held ones is likely in the short to medium term, mainly the result of the unwillingness of outside powers to become involved directly in ground operations and organizational flaws within the TNC. Western and central Libya, where Qadhafi’s strongholds lay, is likely to continue to face shortages of food, fuel and man power, being cut off from key oil wells and being under international isolation. As the conflict wears on the probability of mutinies and major defections by local people and regime insiders in these areas increases (and the impact of defections will be greater). Without significant outside support in the medium term Qadhafi’s hold on the west stands a good chance of collapsing. Yet Tripoli maintains a strong military advantage and a has a history of coping under sanctions (some much tougher than the current ones). The key variables here are: the ability of the anti-Qadhafi forces to maintain momentum (and exploit it), better coordinate their offensives, gain international diplomatic support, successfully utilize their hydrocarbon resources and the level of support provided to Tripoli by its key foreign partners. The collapse of the Qadhafi-held areas in Libya is likely to cause significant regional instability given the limited resources of the Transitional National Council (TNC); absent decisive third party military and/or development intervention or a major diplomatic coup among Qadhafi’s allies (particularly one that allows the regime core to avoid prosecution), the Libyan conflict is likely to drag on for many months.
- Although the Tripoli government faces major challenges from NATO strikes and the rebels (whose combat performance and provisioning has improved recently), the TNC’s ability to take decisive control of the country should it dislodge Qadhafi is far from clear. The TNC is significantly divided internally between personalities, regions, ideas and other key points while lacking the organizational, administrative and military infrastructure and cohesion that cast serious doubt on their ability to effective consolidate (or even establish) control over the whole of the country in the (eventually likely) event that the rebels seize the western part of the country or the government in Tripoli collapses. Given that much (if not all) of the TNC is unelected and organized by committees of notables of various origins questions over accountability and legitimacy are likely to become more significant as the conflict wears on and after any potential victory of Qadhafi. While the common cause against the Tripoli regime unites the TNC’s forces, it is highly uncertain that political unity will directly follow the fall of Qadhafi. This is further complicated by the wide proliferation of firearms and other weapons to civilians as a result of the conflict which is likely to undermine efforts to stabilize areas both currently held by the rebels and those that might come under their control.
- The TNC’s success in establishing strong diplomatic contacts has helped to further isolate Qadhafi from western countries and several significant Arab states. Recent success in receiving recognition as a “legitimate partner in negotiations on Libya’s future” from Russia (
which still recognizes the Tripoli government as legitimate) is significant and may influence relevant regional players like Algeria to at least partly revise elements of their Libya policy (Russia’s calls for Qadhafi to step down reflect one of the TNC’s greatest advantages over Tripoli: they control the main oil cities in the north, the focus of Russian other foreign interests in the country). This could, in turn, impact the direction of events in Tripoli but without decisive moves from capitals like Moscow, Beijing, Algiers or African heavy weights the situation inside Libya is likely to continue as is over the medium term.
- EGYPT. The uprising in Egypt will empower populist politics in the region at large. Popular pressures on the transitional government and successive elected governments will likely lead to a more assertive Egyptian position on Palestine, greater attention paid to Egypt’s relationship with Ethiopia (and perhaps Sudan) and efforts to restore the country’s prestige in the region, Muslim and developing worlds. This can be seen in Egypt’s recent efforts at promoting Palestinian reconciliation which is likely to result in a balancing of Iran and Syria’s influence on the overall Palestinian scene. Given Egypt’s economic condition it is likely that it will continue to rely on patronage from the US and Saudi Arabia which will have the affect of moderating Egyptian policy in specific issue areas, especially on the Palestinian issue and Iran. Recent overtures toward Iran (particularly allowing Iranian warships to cross the Suez Canal) reflect the freedom of Egypt’s bureaucracy in the wake of Mubarak’s fall. Whether the military government and its allies will continue this trend in ernest is unclear: the Egyptians probably view the transitional period as a time to restore the visage of Egypt’s independence after many years of narrow adherence to the priorities of the Cairo-Washington relationship but do not intend to initiate rapprochement with Tehran and Damascus to such an extent that it would alienate Cairo from its Gulf partners or the west. The old Mubarak-era elite will play a key role in this respect as will emerging elements of the leadership class with links to international capital (particularly those with links to the Gulf in financial and/or political-religious affairs).
- TURKISH INFLUENCE. Turkey’s policy on the uprising reflects how the winter and spring caught Ankara off guard. The Turks are faced with new opportunities for both political and moral leadership in the region. Their responses to the Libyan, Syrian and Egyptian crises reflect the dilemmas it faces in maintaining the economic and political gains it has made in the Arab world over the last decade. Turkey has been hesitant to compromise its significant economic interests in Libya and Syria and slow to develop a discernible policy as the geopolitical environment that enabled the “zero problems” policy has crumbled. Turkey’s influence on Arab affairs is relatively recent and limited but growing and a more clever approach to the uprisings could help deepen Turkey’s positive role in the region especially if this evolves beyond what Steven Cook has called “cynical posturing.” At present, Turkey’s current reactive posture contributes to a crisis of leadership in the region caused by doubts among local actors in the credibility of American support, Egypt’s transition and uncertainty among the Gulf states. Turkey remains popular among many Arabs for its posture on Palestine and its growing economic role.
- IRANIAN INFLUENCE. Iran’s influence is likely to be complicated as the Arab uprisings go on. Its prominent role in encouraging and supporting the resistance camp contributes to its regional prestige but the Syrian uprising will probably do significant damage to this with the man on the street by associating it with the crackdowns on an Arab liberation movement. Its own record of repressing post-election demonstrations will likely become more prominent. Iran’s recent efforts to capitalize on the Egyptian uprising have been ineffective. Absent a conflict between Hizb Allah and Israel, Iran is unlikely to gain from the current political situation overall, particularly given its internal power struggle. In the Arab Gulf regime paranoia about Iranian efforts to infiltrate Shi’i communities and foment revolutionary fervor encourage sectarian crackdowns as in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia and justify resistance to reform and change in general. The Saudi response to the Bahraini uprising and its posture toward its own Shi’i community and the Yemeni problem are likely to continue to escalate the brewing conflict between the GCC countries and Iran. In attempting to stave off reform and upheaval by using the religious card as a way of uniting Sunni majorities, Saudi Arabia risks provoking and spreading sectarian unrest in the Arab Gulf and Iran. It is very likely that Iranian influence in the Shi’i communities of the Gulf is greatly overstated at present but continued regime repression will probably increase and reenforce Tehran’s political appeal in for these communities (while at the same time incentivizing efforts on the part of Arab Shi’is in the Gulf to distance themselves from Iran).
- REGIONAL ISLAMIST TENDENCIES. Should the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood make major gains in electoral contests in Egypt similar parties and movements in the Levant and possibly the Maghreb would increase in confidence, assertiveness and popularity. Jordan’s Brotherhood would be significantly emboldened and as would religious parties in Tunisia and Yemen. In Tunisia the prominent Nahdha party has benefited from Gulf (especially Qatari) patronage in media and propaganda contributing to its edge over the numerous secular and leftist parties emerging there. Several Islamist parties have emerged since the fall of Ben Ali, some coming out of historic tendencies like Nahdha or more recent and more conservative trends which lack deep appeal among the Tunisian masses. The Islamists’ strongest competitors are left-wing parties, which will very likely be important in the July polls by forming coalitions (to counter an-Nahdha) and by shifting alliances between coalitions with Islamists and other leftist and secular parties. In Egypt several leftist parties have emerged which appear likely to be able to capitalize on the growing workers’ movement there and coming into open competition with the Brotherhood. The growth of Salafi factions and parties in Egypt and Tunisia presents a new Islamist tendency on the political scene. Egypt has seen a growing rivalry between Salafi and Sufi activists and some of the Salafis there have taken part in sectarian attacks on the Coptic minority. Similar Salafi factions are likely to emerge as political systems open and they may contribute to the fragmentation of religious tendencies in the Arab countries; it is likely that the Libyan Brotherhood will have significant influence in the political arrangements that emerge there in the near future. Divisions within the major existing Islamist parties and blocs are likely to continue to grow as non-Islamist parties and groups proliferate and disagreements over strategy and ideology are discussed more openly.