Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

January 27, 2011

Unrest in the Middle East: implications for homeland security?

Filed under: International HLS — by Arnold Bogis on January 27, 2011

Trying to predict the outcome of all the protests rocking Middle Eastern countries is a mug’s game.  Will authoritarian regimes fall or will they crush the uprisings?  If political change occurs, will democracy (of any sort) necessarily be the result?

Middle East expert Marc Lynch of George Washington University addresses some of the underlying issues:

The end of the Tunisian story hasn’t yet been written. We don’t yet know whether the so-called Jasmine Revolution will produce fundamental change or a return to a cosmetically-modified status quo ante, democracy or a newly configured authoritarianism. But most of the policy community has long since moved on to ask whether the Tunisian protests will spread to other Arab countries — Egypt, of course, but also Jordan, Yemen, Algeria, Libya, and almost every place else. Most experts on each individual country can offer powerful, well-reasoned explanations as to why their country won’t be next. I’m skeptical too.

But I found it unsatisfying to settle for such skepticism as I watched the massive demonstrations unfold in Egypt on my Twitter feed while moderating a panel discussion on Tunisia yesterday (I plead guilty). As I’ve been arguing for the last month, something does seem to be happening at a regional level, exposing the crumbling foundations of Arab authoritarianism and empowering young populations who suddenly believe that change is possible. There are strong reasons to expect most of these regimes to survive, which we shouldn’t ignore in a moment of enthusiasm. But we also shouldn’t ignore this unmistakable new energy, the revelation of the crumbling foundations of Arab authoritarian regimes, or the continuing surprises which should keep all analysts humble about what might follow.

Harvard realist Stephen Walt does not believe we’ll see what happened in Tunisia occur in Egypt or elsewhere….maybe:

Do the large and angry demonstrations in Egypt mean that I was wrong to predict that the revolution in Tunisia wouldn’t spread? Not yet, but I will be watching events closely and developments there could eventually prove me wrong. (As Keynes famously retorted, “when the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do?”) But thus far, I’m sticking with my original forecast.

And Daniel Drezner of Tufts University asks a question that touches on a potential homeland security implication:

Which neoconservative impulse will win out — the embrace of democratic longing, or the fear of Islamic movements taking power?

Experts have pointed out that while there was little Islamic fundamentalist-based opposition to the Tunisian government, that is not true in Egypt.  While it appears the current protests are organic in nature and not organized by any particular group, the largest opposition group in Egypt is the Muslim Brotherhood.  Clearly spelling out the nature of the group is for others with a much deeper understanding of their beliefs and activities, but I would bet that many U.S. security officials would be nervous about them gaining power in the largest Arab state.  Many homeland security analysts are already wary of groups operating in the U.S. that are associated with the Brotherhood.

A larger issue is if regime change does come to some of these nations, will it have a net positive effect in terms of terrorist recruitment in the future? One of the reasons given by Bin Laden for attacking the U.S. is that we prop up these “apostate” regimes in the Arab world–regimes that people like Bin Laden and al-Zawahiri have been unable to topple themselves.  So they focused on the “far enemy” (the U.S.) so that we would retreat from the Middle East and they could then topple the “near enemy” (regimes in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, etc.).

So if there is regime change of any sort, will that decrease the terrorist threat to the U.S.?

As appealing as the prospect of democracy spreading across the Middle East is, it is not the primary national security interest in the region for the U.S.  That would be keeping the flow of oil unimpeded by ensuring that no one state dominates the area.  Could that clear interest come into conflict with a murky opportunity to perhaps decrease the long-term terrorist threat?     

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Comment by William R. Cumming

January 27, 2011 @ 9:55 pm

Is this more blowback for US thoughtlessness? Some blogs indicate higher food prices triggered the self-immolation in Tunisia and now driving dissent. The link is the conversion of agricultural land in US from food production to energy production!
So what is HLSWATCH take on this theory?

And the US taken completely by surprise while the Pew Research group indicates followers of Islam will be 25% of world population by 2030! And of course US not allowed to support birth control in its foreign policy. Mexico in 1940–40M people. Today 140M. Is there a connection?

Revolutions are about power which is taken not given so this will be the year of revolution and perhaps decade. So possibility of large refugee movements, aslyum seekers, and illegal immigration to developed world and from Islamic world. Yes it has implications.

Comment by john f morton

January 29, 2011 @ 10:01 am

As Bette Davis said in “All About Eve,” “Fasten your seatbelts: it’s going to be a bumpy night.”

Mubarak will probably have to go. If the army moderates can preserve a smooth transition with the youth supporting them (a stretch) it could be ok. Maybe El Baradai could manage a caretaker government until elections. We could get behind that. But if the Muslim Brotherhood catches up with the tide, it will be like Lenin when Kerensky was in with the Mensheviks. The MB is the oldest extremist group in the ME dating from GB’s rule in the 20s. As we all know, the number 2 in al Qaeda came from them (Dr. Zawahri). Potentially a bad deal if all the political prisoners get on the loose a la Bastille. I don’t know how many Shia are in Egypt, not many, but then Iran can see the parallels to its revolution. Hamas and Hezbollah are Shiite, Iran sponsored, of course. A radical Egypt would be Sunni. Both would compete to be seen as the purest heir to bring back the Caliphate, i.e., analogous to the rivalry between Stalinists and Trotskyites. We gave Egypt a lot of security assistance equal to the Israelis in fact, in billions, the two top recipients of U.S. military aid in the world. If Israel is not happy with the outcome, e.g., because of what it would mean for Gaza, we have a huge problem. Egypt of course has the Suez Canal and thus an impact on the price of oil, etc. And then there is the knock-on impact on the youth and populations in Yemen, Jordan, even Albania (already happening) and elsewhere. The demographics are such that the populations of all these countries are preponderantly under 25, unemployed, so in the Muslim world this youthful revolutionary fervor has the hubris of what it had in the West in 1968. Play that old Beatles song, folks. (Although that Lennon wasn’t carrying pictures of Chairman Mao.) Lastly, some of this was made possible by the WikiLeaks revelations of the duplicity of Arab leaders (saying one thing for their publics and working with the Americans in private),
particularly in Yemen. On top of which, now the Daily Telegraph is reporting the U.S. has been secretary backing the uprising! So, you see, this is a hugely important story to follow this weekend. I’m not telling y’all anything you don’t already know. But dang, will this be the Sarajevo of Armageddon? Which brings us back to Bette Davis.
John Fass Morton

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