Unrest in the Middle East: A Special Report

24 MINS READFeb 17, 2011 | 19:49 GMT
Footage of self-immolations in Algeria, clashes between police and protesters in Yemen and Bahrain, government reshufflings in Jordan and fledgling street demonstrations in Iran could lead to the impression of a domino effect under way in the Middle East in which aging autocrats are on the verge of being uprooted by Tunisia-inspired revolutionary fervor. A careful review of unrest in the Middle East and North Africa, however, exposes a very different picture. Many of the protests sprouting up in these countries have a common thread, and that alone is cause for concern for many of the region's regimes. High youth unemployment, a lack of political representation, repressive police states, a lack of housing and rising commodity prices are among the more common complaints voiced by protesters across the region. Social media has been used both as an organizing tool for protesters and a surveillance enabler by regimes. More generally, the region is witnessing a broad, public reaction to the layers of corruption that have become entrenched around these regimes over the past several decades. Regime responses to those complaints also have been relatively consistent, including subsidy handouts; changes to the government, in many cases cosmetic; promises of job growth, electoral reform, and a repeal of emergency rule; and in the case of Egypt, Yemen and Algeria, public dismissal of illegitimate succession plans. Anti-regime protesters in many of these countries have faced off with mostly for-hire pro-regime supporters tasked with breaking up the demonstrations, the camel cavalry in Egypt being the most vivid example of this tactic. (click here to enlarge image) While the circumstances at first glance appear dire for most of the regimes, each of these states also has unique circumstances. While Tunisia can be considered a largely organic, successful uprising, for most of these states, the regimes retain the tools to suppress dissent, divide the opposition and maintain power. In others, those engaging in the civil unrest are pawns in behind-the-scenes power struggles. In all, the assumed impenetrability of the internal security apparatus and the loyalties and intentions of the army remain decisive factors in determining the direction of the unrest.

Egypt: The Military's 'Revolution'

In the past several days Egypt has not witnessed a popular revolution but a carefully managed succession by the military. The demonstrations, bringing out around 200,000 to 300,000 people at their peak, were genuinely inspired by the regime turnover in Tunisia, pent-up socio-economic frustrations (youth unemployment in Egypt stands at around 25 percent) and extreme disillusionment with former President Hosni Mubarak's regime. It must be recognized that the succession crisis in Egypt was playing out between the country's military elite and Mubarak well before protests began Jan. 25. The demonstrators, encouraged by both internal and external pro-democracy groups, were in fact a critical tool the military used to maneuver Mubarak out while preserving the regime. So far, the Egyptian military has maintained the appearance of being receptive to opposition demands. Over time, however, the gap between opposition and military elite interests will grow, as the latter works to maintain its clout in the political affairs of the state while also containing a perceived Islamist threat.

Tunisia: Not Over Yet

Though Tunisia had some domestic pro-democracy groups before unrest began in December 2010, Tunisia saw one of the region's more organic uprisings. Years of frustration with corruption and the political and business monopoly of former President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali's regime, high youth unemployment — estimated at around 30 percent in the 15-29 age group — and rising commodity prices fueled the unrest. The self-immolation of an educated young man who was trying to sell fruits and vegetables started the unrest, helping break down the fear that Tunisia's internal security apparatus had maintained for decades. The ouster of Ben Ali and his family and a reshuffling of the government for now have calmed most of the unrest. A sense of normalcy is gradually returning as Tunisians look ahead to as-yet unscheduled elections due sometime in 2011. Since Tunisia won its independence from France in 1956, the Constitutional Democratic Rally (RCD) party, which served as Ben Ali's main political vehicle, has dominated the country. This leaves opposition groups with little to no experience in managing political, much less business affairs. RCD politicians have been quick to seek to disassociate themselves from the Ben Ali name in hopes of retaining their wealth and political clout while the opposition remains unorganized and divided. Unlike Egypt, the Islamist opposition, led by the formerly exiled leadership of the Ennahdha party, remains largely marginal. In all likelihood, Tunisia will end up with another government dominated by many of the former Ben Ali elites, albeit with a democratic face. This creates the potential for another wave of unrest, raising the question of the Tunisian army's motives. The military dropped its support for Ben Ali less than a month after the uprising began, and only three days after Ben Ali called for the army to maintain order in the streets of the capital. The Tunisian army is likely looking to the Egypt model, in which the military is now standing at the helm and benefiting from a number of political and economic perks as a result. Ultimately, the situation in Tunisia remains in flux, and an army intervention down the line should not be ruled out.

Algeria: The Power Struggle Behind the Protests

Many of the same socio-economic factors afflicting its North African neighbors like Tunisia and Egypt have fueled Algeria's protests. (Youth unemployment in Algeria is around 20 percent, and high food prices were causing riots even before the regional unrest began.) Thus far, the major protests have averaged in the hundreds as the internal security apparatus has resorted to increasingly forceful measures to restrict demonstrations in Algiers and to the east in the Kabylie region's Bejaia province. Thousands of riot police have been deployed ahead of mass demonstrations planned for Feb. 18 and Feb. 25. The protests are primarily youth-driven and are being organized through channels like Facebook in defiance of the country's ban on demonstrations in the capital. The Rally for Culture and Democracy party led by Saeed Saidi, the National Coordination for Change and Democracy and Algeria's League for Human Rights have coordinated the protests. Critically, a number of the country's most powerful trade unions are taking part. The banned Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) has also reportedly called on Algerians to take part in the march to demand "regime change," prompting Algerian authorities on Feb. 11 to arrest hardliner FIS second-in-command Ali Belhadj. While the civil unrest will continue to capture the cameras' attention, the real struggle in Algeria is not playing out in the streets. A power struggle has long been under way between the country's increasingly embattled president, Abdel Aziz Bouteflika, and the head of the Military Directorate of Intelligence and Security, Gen. Mohamed "Toufik" Mediene. After ending a bloody civil war with radical Islamists led by the FIS, Bouteflika came to power in 1999 as a civilian leader. He relied on a combination of accommodation and force to stabilize the country. Widely regarded as the chief power broker in Algerian politics, Mediene has held his post since 1990 and consequently lays claim to a wide network of political, security, business and trade union connections. Bouteflika relied heavily on Mediene to both contain the Islamist threat and also to reduce the clout of the army in Algerian politics. The president then started running into serious trouble when he attempted to expand his own influence at the expense of Mediene and his allies. The power struggle between the two has intensified in recent years, with state-owned energy firm Sonatrach even getting caught in the fray. Bouteflika, age 73, won a third term in 2009 after abolishing Algeria's two-term limit. His current term is set to expire in 2014. Numerous hints have been dropped that the aging president either would hand power to his younger brother or to the prime minister, plans that Mediene strongly opposes. Not by coincidence, one of the main organizers of the demonstrations, Saeed Saidi (a Berber) is known to be on excellent terms with Mediene, also a Berber. The call for Berber rights — Berbers make up roughly one-third of the Algerian population — has been one of the leading drivers of the demonstrations thus far. A large portion of Algeria's majority Arab population, however, has yet to show an interest in taking to the streets in protest against the regime. The country's powerful trade unions, which have strong political connections and a proven ability to twist Bouteflika's arm through crippling strikes demanding more limits on foreign investment and better wages, are a critical element to the demonstrations. Overall, while the roots of Algeria's civil unrest are like those in Tunisia and Egypt, the youth demonstrators are not the decisive factor in determining the course of events in the country. The timing appears ripe for Mediene to lay pressure on Bouteflika to meet his demands on the coming succession. How far Mediene goes in undercutting — and perhaps attempting to remove — Bouteflika remains to be seen. The Algerian military must also be watched closely in the coming weeks. Bouteflika has a number of close allies in the military elite to counter Mediene, but there are also a number of disaffected soldiers in lower ranks who have seen the military's profile decline under Bouteflika's rule. Bouteflika has attempted to pacify the opposition with subsidies — aided by the current high price of oil — a vow to lift emergency rule by the end of February and promises of (limited) political reforms. But the president is likely to rely more heavily on force against protesters and quiet concessions to trade unions while trying to cope with the bigger threat posed by the country's intelligence chief.

Morocco: Regime Confident Amid the Strife

Morocco has been quiet during the recent wave of unrest. Though it has yet to experience any mass demonstrations, small protests have occurred and at least four cases of self-immolations have been reported since the first incident in Tunisia on Dec. 17, 2010. Now, however, a recently created Facebook group known as "Moroccans for Change" has called for a nationwide protest Feb. 20, something the government of King Mohammed VI has responded to by meeting with opposition parties and promising to speed up the pace of economic, social and political reforms. Just as in Egypt, there are many strands in the Moroccan opposition, from secular pro-democracy groups to Islamists. Those planning the Feb. 20 protests are not seen as having much in common with the Islamist Justice and Development Party or the largest opposition force and main Islamist group in the country, the banned Justice and Charity party, which is believed to have a membership of roughly 200,000. Where Morocco differs from Egypt, however, is in the fact that the opposition is not calling for regime change, but rather a greater say in the political system, i.e., from within the constitutional monarchy. In one of its main demands, the opposition has called for a new constitution that would strip power from the monarchy and from the network of state and business elites known as the Makhzen. Demands for higher wages and state-subsidized housing are also opposition priorities, along with calls for less police brutality, a common source of animosity toward governments in the Arab world. In a sign of the Moroccan government's confidence in managing the situation, the government has given its formal approval to the Feb. 20 protest march. Moroccan Foreign Minister Taieb Fassi Fihri has meanwhile expressed fears that Algeria may seek to take advantage of the current state of upheaval in the Arab world to stir up unrest in Western Sahara, a buffer territory bordering Morocco, Algeria and Mauritania held by a rebel group opposed to Moroccan control of the region, known as the Polisario Front. The Polisario Front has long been supported by Algeria, Morocco’s neighbor and rival. Raising the threat of Algerian meddling could also be a way for Morocco to justify a strong security presence in containing potential unrest. In sum, the planned demonstrations in Morocco are illustrations of opportunism as opposed to a serious potential popular uprising — much less regime change.

Jordan: The Accommodationist Approach

The Jordanian opposition, led by the Jordanian Muslim Brotherhood, was quick to seize on the Tunisian and Egyptian unrest and organize peaceful sit-in demonstrations in their ongoing push for electoral reform and fresh parliamentary elections. The Hashemite monarchy, however, has had much more experience in accommodating its Islamist opposition. The political arm of the Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamic Action Front (IAF), is allowed political representation, albeit not at a level they deem sufficient. King Abdullah II acted quickly to pre-empt major civil unrest in the country by handing out millions of dollars in subsidies and by forming a new government. While making concessions, Abdullah has worked to avoid giving in too much to Islamist demands, making clear that there are limits to what he will do. Former general and now Prime Minister Marouf al-Bakhit heads the new government. His Cabinet, sworn in Feb. 9, includes some figures with an Islamist background. Even though the IAF announced that it would not participate in the new government and called for fresh elections, it also said it would wait before judging the new government's sincerity about reform plans and would continue to hold peaceful demonstrations. In other words, the IAF understands its limits and is not attempting a regime overthrow, meaning the situation is very much contained. Meanwhile, opportunistic tribal leaders, who traditionally support the Jordanian regime, recently decided to voice complaints against regime corruption to extract concessions while the situation was still tense. The Jordanian government quickly dealt with the situation through quiet concessions to the main tribal leaders.

Bahrain: A Sunni-Shiite Struggle with Geopolitical Implications

Long-running sectarian strife between Bahrain's Shiite majority and ruling Sunni al-Khalifa monarchy is the driving force behind civil unrest in Bahrain. Bahrain was the first among Persian Gulf countries to witness significant demonstrations, and protesters clashed with riot police early on. After two days of demonstrations led by Shiite opposition groups, a heavy crackdown was launched on Pearl Roundabout in the heart of Manama late Feb. 16 on mostly Shiite protesters who were camping overnight. While most of the protesters' demands initially centered on political reform, the demands of some, though not all, gradually escalated to the removal of the prime minister and then the king. Pearl Roundabout, the focal point of the protests, has been cleared and is being held by Bahraini security forces. (Roughly 90 percent of Bahrain's security apparatus is Sunni.) Even after this show of force, the potential for further sectarian strife between Shiite protesters and security forces remains, especially as funeral processions are likely to add to the current unrest. The ruling Sunni family may be a minority in the Shiite-majority country, but some 54 percent of the population is made up of foreign guest workers, who are notably not taking part in the demonstrations. Energized by the crackdown, seven opposition groups, including both Shia and Sunnis, reportedly are forming a committee to unify their position with the aim of getting at least 50,000 people to the streets Feb. 19. Young, enraged men may feel the compulsion to face off against security forces again, but they are unlikely to be able to mobilize enough people to overwhelm the security apparatus. The al-Khalifa family is no stranger to communal strife and appears capable of putting down the unrest, but the events of the past few days will make the task of managing the tiny country's demographic imbalance that much more difficult for the regime. Sectarian tensions in Bahrain bear close watching, as the country is a significant proxy battleground in the broader geopolitical struggle between Saudi Arabia and the United States on one side and Iran on the other. Bahrain is home to the U.S. 5th Fleet, while for its part, Saudi Arabia fears that a regime turnover to the Shia in Bahrain would encourage the Shiite minority in Saudi Arabia's eastern province to follow suit. Iranian media and STRATFOR Iranian diplomatic sources appear to be making a concerted effort to spread stories of Saudi special operations forces deploying to Bahrain to help crack down on Shiite protesters. Such stories could enable Iran to justify assistance to the Bahraini Shia, particularly to Al Wefaq, Bahrain's main Shiite opposition group, turning the country into a more overt proxy battleground between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Iran may be attempting to amplify the Sunni-Shiite conflict at a time when the United States is already particularly stressed in the region to boost its negotiating position, but Iran is also facing problems of its own at home.

Iran: Standard Operating Procedure

Following the 2009 post-election uprising and subsequent crackdown, Iranian opposition groups are using the unrest in the Arab world to fuel an attempted comeback against the clerical regime. Protests Feb. 14 numbered in the thousands and remained concentrated in Tehran — smaller protests also were reportedly in Esfahan and Shiraz — with embattled opposition leaders Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi encouraging protesters to mobilize. The regime used the deaths of two student protesters to call for the hanging of Mousavi and Karroubi for inciting the unrest that led to the protesters' deaths. More unrest is expected during the protesters' funeral processions and on Feb. 18 following Friday prayers, but Iran's experienced security apparatus and Basij militiamen have resorted to their usual, effective tactics of breaking up the demonstrations and intimidating the opposition. Poor socio-economic conditions, high youth unemployment (around 26 percent) and disillusionment with the regime are all notable factors in the development of Iran's opposition movement, but as STRATFOR stressed in 2009, the primarily youth-driven, middle- and upper-class opposition in Tehran is not representative of the wider population, a significant portion of which is supportive of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The more apathetic observers have yet to demonstrate a willingness to put their lives and their families' lives at risk by opposing the government. Rather than posing an existential threat to the Ahmadinejad government, the Iranian opposition largely remains an irritant to the regime.

Libya: Crowd Control, Gadhafi-Style

Demonstrators in Libya planned a "Day of Rage" on Feb. 17 as a rare show of protest against the regime of Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi. Media coverage in Libya is severely limited, but reports and eyewitness videos trickled out showing deadly clashes between protesters and security forces in the cities of Benghazi and Al Bayda. In Tripoli, meanwhile, footage of Gadhafi blowing kisses and towering above a crowd of his supporters dominated Libyan state television. Violent clashes between protesters and police previously broke out late Feb. 15 in Benghazi, where demonstrators demanded the release of human rights activist and lawyer Fathi Turbil. Libya's youth unemployment is the highest in North Africa, averaging somewhere between 40 and 50 percent. This is compounded by the regime's gross mismanagement of efforts to develop the non-oil sector economy. Calls for jobs, basic access to services, housing, and media and political freedoms have been made by fledgling opposition groups with leaders based abroad, groups that have nudged demonstrators on via social media. Public demonstrations in a police state like Libya are notable, but the Gadhafi regime is also extremely adept at putting down dissent in the sparsely populated desert country. While the regime will rely on its iron fist to contain the unrest, it has also made limited concessions in releasing Turbil while promising further prison releases. Pro-government demonstrators have been unleashed, subsidies are likely to be doled out, and security forces are cracking down hard while Gadhafi is doing an effective job in making a mockery of the unrest by taking part in his own pro-government demonstrations. Most important, the Gadhafi regime has had success in pardoning and re-integrating members of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group to guard against the Islamist militant threat and has maintained a close relationship between the army and the country's main tribes. The civil unrest in Libya is unlikely to pose a meaningful threat to the regime, but it could impact the country's ongoing power-struggle between Gadhafi's two sons. The younger and reform-minded son, Seif al-Islam — along with his ally, National Oil Corp. Chairman Shukri Ghanem — has been put on the defensive of late by his brother, Motasem, who is Libya's national security adviser and has the support of many within the political and military old guard. Seif al-Islam has sought to distinguish himself from old guard politics and to build his credibility in the country, even going so far as having his charity organization publish a report on Libyan human rights abuses that harshly criticized the regime. The old guard has since pushed back on Seif al-Islam, but the current unrest could strengthen his case that limited reforms to the system are required for the long-term viability of the Gadhafi regime.

Yemen: No Relief for Sanaa

Even before the current spate of opposition unrest, Yemen already faced immense challenges in creating jobs (youth unemployment is roughly 35 percent and unemployment overall is estimated around 16 percent), developing the economy without the petrodollar cushion its neighbors enjoy, containing a secessionist movement in the south and the al-Houthi rebellion in the north, and fighting al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), a threat exacerbated by the fact that jihadist sympathizers have penetrated Yemen's intelligence and security apparatus. After taking a gamble in recent months in making limited political concessions to the main opposition coalition Joint Meetings Party (JMP) led by the Islamist party Islah, Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh now faces daily protests in the capital city of Sanaa and Aden. Over the past month, most of the demonstrations have numbered in the hundreds and on a couple of occasions in the low thousands. The protests started out peacefully but have turned more violent in recent days as protesters and security forces have clashed. (One young protester was reportedly shot dead Feb. 16.) In attempt to take the steam out of the political opposition, Saleh has announced that he will not run for re-election in 2013 and that he would do away with pending amendments that would have abolished presidential term limits. Those moves helped stymie complaints that Saleh would try to hand the presidency to his eldest son, Ahmed Saleh, who currently commands the Republican Guard, the elite military force that serves as the president's first line of defense. Saleh has also called on the main opposition parties to form a unity government and has been offering a number of political concessions behind the scenes. Those moves, while making Saleh appear weak and politically vulnerable, appeared to be working Feb. 13, when the JMP announced it would drop out of the demonstrations and resume dialogue with the government. The JMP has since reversed its decision, feeling that there is no better time to pressure Saleh into making concessions than now. The multitude of threats the Saleh regime faces puts Yemen at higher risk than most of the other countries experiencing unrest. Saleh's ability to survive depends on two key factors: the tribes and the army. Saleh has long been effective at co-opting the country's main tribes and at keeping the military elite loyal. The army still stands behind the president, but STRATFOR sources in Yemen have indicated that the regime is growing increasingly nervous about tribal loyalties. The demonstrators on the streets meanwhile remain relatively limited in number. That dynamic could change if the situation further deteriorates and people start recalculating their estimates of Saleh's ability to survive. Should Saleh become too big of a liability, a contingency plan is in place for Vice President Abd Rabu Mansour, who has been the main interlocutor between the regime and the opposition, to take over. Saleh for now has some staying power, but his grip is showing increasingly serious signs of slipping.

Syria: Maintaining the Iron Fist

Soon after the unrest in Egypt broke out, Syrian opposition youth activists, most of whom are based outside the country, attempted to organize their own "Day of Rage" via social media to challenge President Bashar al Assad's regime. Like Bahrain, Syria's ruling elite faces a demographic dilemma: It is an Alawite regime in a Sunni-majority country. Fortunately for the regime, the demonstrations scheduled for Feb. 4-5 in the cities of Damascus, Homs, Aleppo and Qamishli quickly fell flat. The demonstrations were sorely lacking in numbers and interest. Even the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, likely reflecting on the violent consequences of the 1982 Hama insurrection, stuck to issuing statements with their demands instead of risking participation in the demonstrations. Syrian plainclothes police promptly harassed the dozen or so who did show up. Nonetheless, the Syrian regime appears to be taking the threat of regional unrest seriously and has moved quickly to build up its security presence and dole out subsidies to keep a check on further protest attempts. In a rare interview, al Assad indicated to The Wall Street Journal that he also would implement political and media reforms with an aim to hold municipal elections this year. While social media tools like Facebook have been widely celebrated as the catalyst for revolution, the Syrian case illustrates how such tools act as enablers of the regime. Confident in its ability to put down protests, the Syrian government lifted a five-year ban on Facebook and YouTube in February, thereby facilitating its ability to track any opposition plans in the works. Though Syria got a scare early on in the wave of Mideast unrest, it appears to have all the tools in place to maintain the regime's grip on power.

Saudi Arabia: House of Saud Is Safe, for Now

Virtually any spark of unrest in the Middle East will turn heads toward Saudi Arabia, where the global price of oil hangs precariously on the stability of the House of Saud. Though feeble opposition groups have called for greater political and press freedoms, no demonstrations have erupted in the oil kingdom. Saudi petrodollars continue to go a long way in keeping the population pacified, and the regime under Saudi King Abdullah in particular has spent recent years engaging in various social reforms that, while limited, are highly notable for Saudi Arabia's religiously conservative society. Critically, the House of Saud has had success since 9/11, and particularly since 2004, in co-opting the religious establishment, which has enabled the regime to contain dissent while also keeping tabs on AQAP activity bubbling up from Yemen. The main cause for concern in Saudi Arabia is centered on the succession issue, as the kingdom's aging leadership will eventually give way to a younger and more fractious group of royals. Saudi Arabia will offer assistance where it can to contain unrest in key neighbors like Bahrain and Yemen, but for now it is largely immune from the issues afflicting much of the region.

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