Recognizing the True Threat Behind the Current Unrest in the Middle East

With violent reprisal by the Qaddafi regime and the subsequent NATO led military intervention dominating news coverage, violence in places like Syria, Yemen, Lebanon and Bahrain has been put on the backburner. Lacking experience and the political aptitude to deal with mass protest in a civil, effective manner, the leaders of these countries have only inflamed growing movements across the region while belated concessions have come too late to defuse outrage. The instability has certainly been felt in oil prices, yet the real danger lies in how the situation might progress over time.

Interventions in places like Libya do not support vital national interests, but do support vital global interests, including the security and stability of the International Community. Traditional powers of the world, such as the US, the UK, and France, are unaccustomed to their interests so blatantly counting for little. This is why policymakers, especially those of the Cold War era, will want to control the unrest to benefit Western interests, but this will be in vain as our direct interests are irrelevant. As such, the dynamic that evolves from the ongoing protests will be a greater need for all members of the world community to focus on the interests of the Middle Eastern and North African Peoples.

Given the scope of the uprisings throughout the Middle East and North Africa, the unrest has reached a critical turning point where suppression of the various movements can only be temporary. What many of the regimes in the region have failed to grasp as seen through their actions is that they are seeding long-term unrest by attempting to crush short-term revolutionary impulses. Many authoritarian leaders fear total anarchy if they show weakness, but what they need to do is demonstrate honest, constructive, and meaningful changes are in the works.

The problem with dictatorships and monarchy backed pseudo-democracies stems from their affinity for individual leaders. Basically, an ineffective leader might be removed in a democracy to avoid revolt, Canada and Japan offering recent examples, but authoritarian regimes perceive leaders like President Ali Abdullah Saleh of Yemen as vital national resources. Where almost no elected official, especially a President, would quit at the first sign of public disapproval, all democratically elected leaders respond to overwhelming popular criticism and would likely resign if faced with the outrage seen in the Muslim world. As such, a failure to grasp this simple notion has only made the situation worse.

Outside of why these regimes continue to pursue a policy course doomed to failure, continued unrest does present real hazards. Where government is weak, militant groups, such as Al-Qaeda, can thrive. In Yemen, not only has “Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula” used the weak government of Yemen to launch attempted terrorist attacks in the West, we now see its operatives using the chaos of the uprisings to solidify their influence with the taking of territories like the Yemenis town of Jaar to establish themselves as legitimate authorities in the Arab world. Adding to this possibility, situations where protestors respond to violence by regimes with violence create opportunities for new militant operations.

Slowly, it appears countries like Yemen, and even Syria, are moving toward some reform. As exemplified by Algeria attempts to embrace change ahead of protestor demands, reform can prove somewhat ineffective as social momentum favors revolt over compromise in the current environment. For Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, a show of force and violence against protestors followed by reforms seems to be the preferred route. Unfortunately, such a path breeds resentment, creates liabilities for allies like the US, and may lead to insufficient reforms. Ultimately, reforms that do not adequately address unrest can lead to the downfall of regimes.

Outside of inflated oil prices and terrorism, which may be more an issue for Middle Eastern and North African powers as authoritarian regimes appear to be the focus of revolt, the threat to the International Community comes from long-term instability. How current revolt is resolved will determine future threats in the region. Whether discussing the expulsion of leaders sympathetic to Western interests or those who conflict with Western powers, no one knows what will replace them. In reality, the fallout of the uprisings is unclear, though it certainly depends little on what the member states of the International Community or the leaders of the region want.