Friday, February 18, 2011

Middle East Protests and Regime Security as of Feb 18

As we continue to cover the Middle East crisis, I wanted to give an update as to my current understanding of regime security throughout the Middle East in light of the current protests that seem to be spreading throughout the entire region.

We've discussed briefly some of the reasons behind the protests, and these geopolitical forces will generally apply to countries besides Tunisia and Egypt.

Below, I've summarized the countries of the greater Middle East* and taken my best shot at assessing the risk to the regime based on the current level of protests and the greater structural factors behind the unrest in the country. In addition, I've color-coded the countries by risk on a map here. I'm happy to release the map into the public domain (this means you can use it as you wish, though I do appreciate credit).

The low attention span summary is that despite the protests, very few Middle Eastern countries face significant risk of regime change. Yemen is likely to see a change in government, and Algeria and Bahrain face an unclear future, but other regimes are relatively secure.

Secure Regimes, Few or No Protests:
-Saudi Arabia: I mention Saudi Arabia due to a surprising lack of unrest. As extremist violence has grown in the country, house Saud has struggled to balance its need for stability with calls for reform, but so far it has managed its oil wealth well enough (and dealt with extremism with a sufficiently fair and progressive hand) that it seems to have warded off too many fundamental causes of instability.
-Iraq: Sporadic protests have erupted in the north and the south of the country, but not in Baghdad. Ironically, the weakness of the current government (and the factious parliamentary system of the country) means that there exists neither a scapegoat (to protest against) nor a hero (to replace him).
-United Arab Emirates

Secure Regimes with Significant Protests:
-Iran: Mousavi and Kharoubi have once again emerged as leaders of the opposition movement, which is forming "green"-style rallies across Iran. Tehran's geopolitical stability is even higher than it was in 2009,

-Jordan: Jordan has often faced demographic instability (due largely to many Palestinian refugees living within its borders), but has generally handled it with some amount of grace. The king has won approval from the opposition by sacking his prime minister and cabinet, and appointing new leaders under a long-term economic and political reformist plan.

-Libya: It's tough to say just how large the protesters in Libya are; Kadafi's media control is significant. Certainly, there are protesters calling for Kadafi's removal in cities across Libya, but Tripoli seems relatively quiet compared to many other Middle Eastern capitals, and the "Day of Anger" seems to have flopped (due in part to security force intimidation). Libya is both willing to crack down hard on protesters and relatively economically secure, making overthrow unlikely.

-Syria: I am wary to group Syria into the same category as Iran and Libya, but the Syrian government has made a few concessions to a relatively small and wary group of protesters, and has also taken moves to suppress the protests that show at least some nervousness in the regime.

-Morocco: Morocco's liberalization efforts since the 1970's (including free trade agreements with the US and EU) have led to significant economic transformation in time. But Morocco's economic fates have worsened since 2008, and this stagnation hurts particularly in a country with nearly 20% youth unemployment and high illiteracy rates. Protests have sprung up, but the regime enjoys relatively wide popular support, and the success of a relatively capitalist approach in the last few decades make alternative economic models (and their standard-bearers) less attractive.

Regimes With Protests, at Risk:
-Sudan: After the Southern Sudanese secession referendum, it seemed tempting to believe that al-Bashir might consolidate power over a now-majority Arab country. Interestingly, Southern Sudan was one of the out-groups that was helping al-Bashir hold together a fragile coalition of Arab Nationalists and Islamists. Now, both Islamists and non-Arab opposition groups are emboldened and trying to push their agenda. To hold power in the short-term, al-Bashir is likely going to have to move closer to an Islamist group he's been trying to distance, which will likely pit him against the 45% non-Arab groups of his country, leading to a prolonged struggle for the future of Sudan.

-Algeria: Food price spikes have exacerbated the unemployment in Algeria, and trade unions have joined protests demanding change. Ultimately, the number of protesters has been kept small, due in large part to security force repression. But long before the Tunisian "Jasmine Revolution," president Bouteflika has faced an increasingly strong rivalry from the Directorate of Intelligence and Security (DRS) for power. The protests give the DRS, which grew powerful during the civil war against Islamist fundamentalists, an opportunity to side with "the people" and attempt a regime change similar to the military-stewarded removal of Mubarak in Egypt.

-Bahrain: Bahrain has one fundamental threat to its regime stability: demographics. Like pre-2003 Iraq, Bahrain is a majority-Shia country ruled by a Sunni dynasty. Unlike Iraq, it is an economic powerhouse with relatively low poverty rates and has been driving moderate reform since 1999. The current Shia community is demanding an end to alleged discrimination against the Shia population in both politics and employment. The situation may have remained low-risk, but Bahrain has become a battleground between Saudi Arabia and Iran, much like Iraq was during its sectarian civil war. Iran sees this as an opportunity to potentially create an ally in the region. Bahrain has reacted surprisingly desperately, violently driving protesters out of Pearl Square, killing 3 and injuring hundreds. Bahrain may have to depend on sustained security repression to keep the Pearl Square incident from leading to a backlash of even more protests.

-West Bank Abbas is highly embattled, though this is due less with the current crisis (and the socioeconomic or demographic causes behind it), and more with the Wikileaks-prompted revelation that he planned to cede significant Palestinian territory to Israel in return for state recognition. The current wave of protest has increased pressure, but has little impact on the long-term endgame of how that will play out for the current Fatah regime.

Regime Change Likely:
-Yemen: Massive protests in Yemen, supported by both an impoverished majority and a radical religious fringe, are likely to take down president Saleh. Massive unemployment, illiteracy, and general poverty (made worse by poor government economic policy) make Yemen a prime target for regime change. Saleh's promise of neither running for re-election nor passing the presidency to his son has done nothing to quell the unrest.

Regime Change Partially Occurring:
-Egypt: The military is working hard to make sure the next regime is friendly (and under the military's control), without looking like it's turning a "revolution" into a coup. Expect the new boss to be similar to the old boss, but more savvy about unemployment and monetary policy.

-Tunisia: Massive protests across Tunisia were led by the 30%-unemployed youth against a regulatory system that left them with no prospects for employment or advancement, and are largely credited as being the "spark" that has set off the current Middle East crisis. President Ben Ali resigned and fled the country, with the Speaker of the Parliament taking his place in an "interim" role. The Tunisian protests continue (in a reduced state, though many of the protesters have no work to which to return), and will likely not abate completely until a compelling plan to meet their demands is formed by the transitional government.

*Note that Afghanistan and Pakistan are left out of this analysis--the current crisis has little to do with the significant regime risk both countries face.
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