State of the Middle East Update

So, after all of the excitement, I haven’t posted an update in a few weeks. Apologies; daily life intervened. Quite a bit has happened; not as much as you may think on some fronts, and more than you may think on others.

Let’s start with Egypt. Mubarak stepped down, the Army has stepped in. Democracy in action, right? Well, maybe. So far, the Army seems to be saying the right things – elections in 6 months, new constitution early next week – but several things remain to be seen. First, who will be running in these elections? It’s not like opposition parties have been able to get amazingly well-organized under Mubarak. (But honestly, I think this one will resolve itself; unlike many other dictatorships, this one didn’t completely grind any potential political opposition into dust, it simply kept them from doing anything. People like el-Baradei can exist in Egypt in a way that they never could in, say, Syria) Second, will the Army follow through, or will it try to hold on to more power for itself? (Which is how we’ve gotten most of our secular dictatorships in the past) Some role for the Army isn’t a disaster, necessarily; if Egypt follows the Turkish example, with the Army viewing itself as the guarantor of secular democracy (and if you do anything they think threatens that, they’ll shoot you) you can end up with something at least basically functional. On the other hand, if they follow Mubarak’s example, well…

The big question still on the table in Egypt is the economic one. Revolutions don’t happen in a vacuum, and pervasive poverty, unemployment, lack of opportunity, and so on are rampant; and they didn’t go away when Mubarak did. As a result, protests have been continuing (although not at quite a frenetic pace as the ones from a few weeks ago); the risk is that these could turn into lots of general strikes, and during this interim phase when there’s not much central government, that could start to destabilize a lot of local-level “keep-the-trains-running” sorts of government, which could make things fall apart badly and open the game up for (e.g.) the Army or another dictator to take power.

But that said, I’m still guardedly optimistic about Egypt’s future. The prevailing attitude appears to have been one of the people getting together to fix things, which I think is one of the best predictors of a successful revolution.

For an example of a different attitude, let’s go to the eastern side of the Arabian Peninsula, over to Bahrain. Here the protests have gotten violent, with the BDF (the local army) opening fire with live ammunition against demonstrators early today. (I listened to audio recordings from journalists; they were definitely firing freely, and by all accounts aiming low and with live ammo.) No good estimates of casualties yet, but the violence is brewing fast. On the other hand, there are angry counter-protests in favor of the local absolute monarchy. Why? This is a pattern that’s very common in the eastern Middle East (the various emirates, Kuwait, Iraq, etc) with a large, and fairly poor Shi’ite majority being ruled over by a small and fairly rich Sunni minority. The tone of the rhetoric in Bahrain is very different from that in Egypt; it’s sounding like it’s all about the ethnic* anger here, and this could quickly manifest as a bloodbath.

Two things which further complicate Bahrain: the US and Iran. The US Navy has a major base in Bahrain, which is the headquarters of the Fifth Fleet and CENTCOM. This is a key, key location and not one which the US is likely to give up. (It’s the major logistical support point for all activity from the eastern coast of Africa all the way to the Pacific, which therefore also means logistics for Iraq and Afghanistan) The US made deals with the monarchy in order to set up shop there, and so it has a vested interest in the place staying stable.

Iran, on the other hand, learned some very important arts of infiltration and subversion from the Soviets. Every country with a significant Shi’ite population – and several areas without one, such as Gaza – has been set up with a fairly deep penetration by Iranian intelligence, which sets up, trains, supplies and supports local “organizations.” When it’s convenient (as it recently was, e.g., in Lebanon and in Gaza) those organizations take over the local government and set up satellite Iranian regimes. This one looks awfully convenient for Iran, and they would have to be fools not to make a play for it. (And needless to say, an Iran-backed regime would not be friendly to a US naval base, nor vice-versa)

So we have a major regional power and a (possibly overextended) superpower both with serious, and conflicting, stakes in a local revolution which could easily slip into ethnic bloodshed, with all sides having very large volumes of armaments sitting around in the region.

Meanwhile in Libya, it’s even harder to get information on what’s going on, but what we can tell for sure is that there have been large demonstrations in the two largest cities, Tripoli and Benghazi, and the government has cracked down with great force. The numbers I’m hearing (although unconfirmed) are dozens of dead, hundreds wounded, and the situation is escalating rapidly. The “good” news is that this is unlikely to act as a tinderbox for anything else in the region; its three Middle Eastern neighbors are Tunisia, Algeria and Egypt, all of which are already part of the situation.

And what about the calls for protests in Syria? They largely didn’t happen, because the military turned out in force, and the Syrians have figured out by now that the al-Assad family isn’t exactly gentle about the way it handles dissent. The Palestinian Authority, Hamas, and the Jordanian government have all managed to keep protest levels fairly low without resorting to quite as much violence, but it’s pretty clear (especially in the case of Hamas) that violence is most certainly an option if needed. Yemen continues its violent protests, and my guess is that the already-weak government will collapse; this is probably the biggest boon to the preexisting rebels (nothing whatsoever to do with the current run of protests, much more to do with Islamist terror groups) who will be able to firmly grab control of… well, whatever they decide to grab control of.

So looking at the map, my current estimate is:

  • The more peaceful Middle Eastern countries – Egypt, Jordan, Morocco – will probably fare the best, with either mostly peaceful regime changes or with existing regimes remaining in power and making varying amounts of concessions. These will be the bastions of stability.
  • Less stable countries which don’t have a deep background of ethnic instability, such as Libya and Yemen, will see more violence, and if their governments collapse the results are likely to be long-lasting and strongly favor the most brutal groups around. At the best they’ll trade one dictator for another; at the worst, they’ll dissolve into failed states.
  • States with sufficiently brutal governments, such as Syria and Iran, will remain quite stable, because anyone who tries anything will rapidly end up disappearing. Along, possibly, with their entire neighborhood. Some less stable countries may decide to copy a page from their playbook in order to keep their status quo.
  • States with a deep background of ethnic tension, especially ones with a deep Sunni-Shi’ite split, will likely fare the worst. Their governments will likely follow the brutal route, but the likelihood of Iranian intervention, and the likelihood of pent-up tension erupting far beyond anyone’s control, will remain high. If the dam breaks in such a country the result is likely to be similar to Iraq in 2004-5, or Bosnia in 1992-5, with localized “ethnic cleansing” (gods, what a euphemism for genocide) and equilibration only after the country has ended up effectively physically segregated.
  • Places with a lot of money (Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Dubai, etc.) or with key strategic value (Bahrain) are likely to play out a much more complicated game, because outside forces have a lot more reason to intervene, whether they want to or not. Bahrain in particular looks like it could be the first flashpoint for many things, and the way it plays out could easily determine the fate of the eastern Middle East. Serious violence there could easily and rapidly spread up the coast of the Arabian Peninsula, into Kuwait, and thence back into Iraq in an unpredictable way.

Oh, and just to make it more fun? Iran is asking permission to send some warships through the Suez Canal into the Mediterranean. Where they would be in an excellent position to support Gazan and Lebanese forces in an attempt to hold on to power. Or in an attempt to invade, oh, I dunno, someone…

Remember when I said the protests in Egypt could turn out very, very badly for the Middle East as a whole? I really wasn’t kidding.

* I really need to make a post sometime about the relationship of ethnicity, language, religion and tribe in the Middle East.

Published in: on February 18, 2011 at 19:00  Comments (3)  


  1. Do you think the Israeli government is capable of engaging in good faith peace negotiations with the Palestinians? I am amazed at the opportunities lost by the constant reneging on settlement boundaries. Are the hard-liners economically advantaged through their military industrial complex to maintain a constant state of war, terror, and panic? It does seem to help them get re-elected. Assuming there is such an unfortunate feedback loop in play, what is the proper means of defusing it?

    • That’s a really good question. I think that in general, the Israelis are capable of negotiating in good faith; there’s a large fraction of the population which genuinely wants a peaceful solution and would make sacrifices in order to get it. But in practice, I think that such negotiations aren’t likely to happen any time soon, for a number of reasons.

      On the Israeli side, the current government is fairly hard-line. I don’t think it’s an economic thing, or a “power through fear” thing. (This is one of the times that Israeli and US politics are very different — alas for the US) Rather, I think that there’s a very deep current of fear in the Israeli population that the Arabs will kill all of the Jews if given a chance. (And given the current situations in Lebanon, Gaza, Syria, and so on, it’s by no means an unfounded fear) The earlier peace process involved on the Israeli side, an actual majority of the population deciding that they were willing to risk it anyway; but with issues like this, they were skittish, and when the peace process didn’t turn out the Left basically collapsed overnight, because people weren’t willing to take the risk anymore. The people you see in the current government aren’t, by and large, stoking fear to get reelected; they’re getting reelected because there’s no shortage of fear to go round, and their answer is basically “OK, we’ll double down on defense and screw trying to make peace.”

      On the Palestinian side, there’s a power vacuum. Hamas is not interested in peace at all. (And in fact, their rise to power in Gaza was one of the big things which convinced Israel to back out of the process) In Fatah, Abbas doesn’t have enough clout to make any agreement stick even if one is made. And no other country is willing or able to come in and back an agreement.

      Really, there’s far more to say about this than can possibly fit into a comment. The issue of settlements, the political strength of Russian immigrants in Israel, the religious/secular divide, Iran’s arms pipelines into Lebanon and Gaza, the “dress rehearsal” war with Hezbollah a while ago… it’s a fairly complex picture, but I think that the upshot is that right now none of the conditions for meaningful peace negotiations are there, nobody is really in a position to go to the table or even all that interested in doing so, and instead everyone is arming and preparing for a much more serious war.

    • You know, I’m thinking about this some more. There was a song that Israel entered into Eurovision a few years ago, “Push the Button“. For all that it’s a silly Eurovision song (and for all that it’s pretty weird) it does seem to capture the broad sentiment of the less-paranoid part of the population. Fear, a very deep wish for peace, and a willingness to be arbitrarily violent if cornered.


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