Monday, January 16, 2012

The Middle East in 2012: The Year of Living Dangerously

A different version of this article has been published in the Jerusalem Post. I own the rights and prefer you to read and link to this version.

The Middle East in 2012: The Year of Living Dangerously

By Barry Rubin

The region-wide upheaval known as “the Arab Spring” would make it seem that terrorism, especially Islamist terrorism, is pretty much as dead as are its thousands of victims. After all, if the protest demonstration and balloting have proven able to resolve grievances then who needs to blow people up?

And the same applies to intimidation and instability since presumably people vote, a government is elected, and democracy immediately enues.

But the Middle East is far from through with violence. Where should we look in 2012 for the greatest threats of terrorism and what will be the targets? If we think this through in advance we can better plan to avoid or minimize these problems.

Let’s start with Egypt. If the military refused to move forward with elections or turn power over to the winners (that is, the Islamists) there would be a violent response. And that’s one of the reasons why this is unlikely to happen. The moderates are not going to engage in violence, which is one reason the military feels free to repress them. The problem of crime and general anarchy has already become very serious.

Yet political violence in Egypt is very likely and it will come mainly from the Salafists. Remember that there are numerous groups and leaders, even within the al-Nur party which has done so well in the elections. Some radical Salafists will not be satisfied with the pace of progress (regress?) toward Islamism. They will target Christians, liberals, secularists, women demanding rights, tourists, and Israel.  Continuing attacks on Christians are inevitable, with the goal of forcing them to submit or encouraging them to flee.

The Brotherhood has no interest in promoting violence—except against Israel—but it has a great interest in condoning violence since to oppose attacks on Christians, moderates, or others will reduce its popularity. But the Brotherhood doesn’t have to worry since the military will be blamed for violence (the bad guys) and be pressed to turn over power to the civilians, that is, the Muslim Brotherhood! Talk about having your cake and eating it, too!

A roughly similar pattern will happen in Libya and Tunisia. The West will praise “progress” toward democracy while the radical Islamists chase or intimidate anyone who pushes for moderation on key issues, much less supports secularism. The governments will from time to time condemn the murder, beating, and threats against the moderates but not necessarily do anything about it. And there aren’t too many moderates in Libya to begin with.

This might be characterized as: We won. The Americans won't save you. Shut up.

For Hamas in the Gaza Strip violence is also, thanks to the West, cost-free. Why? First, while some fighters and civilians will be killed by Israeli retaliation, Hamas doesn’t care about that. Those deaths or destruction create martyrs (urging the rest to fight harder and hate more) and the West will blame Israel. Again, killing and fighting is a win-win situation. Or letting others kill and fight since Hamas can allow smaller groups to do the attacks (Islamic Jihad; the local al-Qaida affiliate) and blame them while Hamas poses as peaceful and moderate.

And then it can always try to hope that terrorist and rocket attacks on Israel provoke enough violence to bring Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, Egyptian government, and even Egyptian arm support.
In Syria, there’s no real cost for the regime to continue murdering its own people, certainly compared to the cost of giving up. And it is clear that the Arab League has no stomach for actually doing something serious.

Iraq? The violence there will continue, especially against Christians until they are all pretty much forced out of the country. The Sunni and Shia will keep fighting, to the detriment of civilians on both sides, even if the main factor determining power will be politics.

Lebanon? Hizballah will use violence against its rivals and nobody in the West will do anything effective about it. Once again, radicals murder moderates; moderates complain. The same point applies in Iran against which there are sanctions but repressing the opposition won’t make them worse.

As for al-Qaida, despite the fact that bin Ladin’s dead yet it will continue to claim victims in such far-flung places as Yemen, Somalia, Iraq, and very possibly Morocco, Gaza, and even perhaps Jordan.
Am I cynical? What I’m trying to do is to rouse people against cynicism, to realize that their countries’ policies are encouraging violence and repression because it most cases they won’t say anything about it and in a few others they won’t do anything about it. Precisely because there is now an open political struggle, the most radical Islamists will use violence against anyone who speaks up or acts up.

And the more “moderate” Islamists who the U.S. government is courting will not stop their militant brethren while benefitting from the incitement, threats, and violence they dispense. If 2011 was the year of the “Arab Spring,” 2012 will be the year for the Islamists to consolidate their gains and eliminate their domestic critics.

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