The Muslim Brotherhood is likely to come to power through elections in Egypt and through violent revolution in Syria and possibly Libya. This will greatly complicate U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East. In addition, Islamist extremists such as al-Qaeda, which took a back seat during the initial phase of the popular revolts, are likely to grow stronger after the downfall of the old regimes creates power vacuums, political disarray, and economic collapses that they can exploit. Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula has already benefited from the turmoil in Yemen, and Palestinian and Egyptian Islamists have cooperated with Bedouin smugglers to carve out a staging area in the Sinai Peninsula for attacks on Israel. Al-Qaeda and other Islamist terrorist groups are likely to take advantage of the political anarchy that has developed in Libya today and is likely to develop in Syria tomorrow.
The bottom line is that the initial democratic impetus that infused many of the disparate groups that forged the “Arab Spring” is not likely to last through the course of the unpredictable political revolutions that have been launched. When the revolutions start eating their children, idealistic democrats are likely to be swallowed up by better organized, better funded, highly motivated Islamist movements, or by military leaders who seek to restore order in societies wracked by political infighting.
— James Phillips is senior research fellow for Middle Eastern Affairs at the Heritage Foundation.
Round one of the Middle Eastern upheavals consisted of uncannily parallel coups d’état in Tunisia and Egypt. In both countries, street demonstrations prompted the security/military establishment to rid itself of a rapacious, unpopular president. Events moved so quickly because, faced with rejection by their own institutional power bases, Presidents Ben Ali and Mubarak had little choice but to resign. Each was rapidly replaced by another security/military leader who kept most of the governing institutions, practices, and policies in place. Neither liberals nor Islamists made much of a difference over the subsequent half year.
Round two consists of the near-certain overthrow of the Qaddafi regime in Libya and the likely overthrow of the Assad dynasty in Syria, as well as the Saleh regime in Yemen. In all three cases, revolution is under way. Should these leaders fall, so will the institutions of their rule, leading to chaos and the eventual founding of entirely new governments. In the Syrian and Yemeni cases, there could well be no effective central government but instead the devolution of power to regions, ethnicities, ideological groups, or tribes.
In other words, the second round is more consequential than the first. Further, the five aforementioned states may not be the only ones in play. Algeria and Jordan could undergo similar processes of upheaval and revolution. Plus, picking up from the repressed riots of 2009, some small spark could set off a conflagration in Iran, the Middle East’s most disruptive state.
Round three could even follow, consisting of regional breakups. Prime candidates here include Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and Turkey.
In brief, we could be just at the start of a wild ride in the world’s most volatile region.
— Daniel Pipes (www.DanielPipes.org) is president of the Middle East Forum and Taube distinguished visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution of Stanford University.