The spirit of rebellion continues to simmer in the Middle East and North Africa. But you won’t see much about it in the headlines.
- By Christian CarylChristian Caryl is the author of Strange Rebels: 1979 and the Birth of the 21st Century. A former reporter at Newsweek, he is a senior fellow at the Legatum Institute (which co-publishes Democracy Lab with Foreign Policy) and is a contributing editor at the National Interest. He is also a senior fellow at the Center for International Studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a regular contributor to the New York Review of Books.
The killing of Christopher Stevens and the storming of U.S. embassies around the Middle East and North Africa has understandably dominated the headlines from the region over the past few weeks. The turmoil has thrust the post-revolutionary countries of the Arab Spring — Egypt, Yemen, Tunisia, and above all Libya — into the limelight.
So yes, we know a lot more now about the militia problem in Benghazi. But what about some of the other countries where revolutionary discontent smolders on without attracting much in the way of press coverage? These are the places where we may be experiencing the political conundrums and diplomatic surprises of tomorrow.
Take, for example, Kuwait — a staunch U.S. ally that has just been rocked by a new bout of protests. The ruling Al-Sabah family has controlled the place for the past two and a half centuries, and they’ve generally succeeded in keeping things firmly under their control (with at least one notable exception back in 1990). But can Washington count on things to stay the way they’ve been?
On October 7, the emir, Sabah al-Ahmad al-Sabah, dissolved parliament — prompting a sizable protest earlier this week (shown in the photo above) by 5,000 disgruntled oppositionists that was violently suppressed by the police. The protestors, a mixture of Islamists and tribal members, were demanding that the emir scrap a proposed electoral law that, they say, would skew the vote in favor of pro-government candidates. (The opposition turned in a surprisingly strong showing in an election earlier this year, apparently unnerving the ruling family.) The protest this week was the latest in a series of rallies by the opposition that have attracted large crowds, all of them calling for greater political accountability.
Now, this doesn’t mean that the House of Sabah is about to collapse. But it certainly demonstrates that the anti-establishment momentum inspired by the popular protests of 2010 and 2011 has not dissipated. The grievances in some other parts of the region, indeed, are strikingly similar to some of those expressed in Kuwait.
Take Jordan, for example. The country, like Kuwait, is another one of Washington’s most reliable allies in the region, and its monarch, King Abdullah II, has so far managed to avoid major instability by promising major reforms to a restive population. But on Friday, October 5, the kingdom’s Muslim Brotherhood brought a big crowd out onto the streets of the capital Amman to demand changes strikingly similar to the ones expressed by the demonstrators in Kuwait. The Jordanians, too, were protesting an election law designed to boost the representation of rural areas (inhabited mostly by Bedouin tribes loyal to the king) over that of cities (home mostly to Palestinians who tend to side with the Islamists).
The king responded by dissolving parliament and appointing a new prime minister. But the Islamists say that they’re boycotting the next election, scheduled for January 23. Some might argue that the king has survived worse challenges than this in the past, invariably banking on his role as the mediator between Jordanian Palestinians and the tribes. Yet now there are signs of increasing restiveness among the tribes, and the king may find himself hard-pressed to ensure their support amid the pressures from a sluggish economy and the rising violence in neighboring Syria.
It’s too early to count Abdullah out. He’s shown himself to be a highly resourceful leader in the past, and it’s also worth noting that the long-established monarchies in the region have actually proven more resilient in the face of popular discontent than the dictator-led corruption. But the kings may not be able to dodge the bullet forever.
Take Morocco, often cited as the country that has managed grassroots discontent better than just about any of its peers. (It’s been particularly lauded by the Americans.) King Mohammed VI responded to mass demonstrations in February 2011 by amending the constitution and holding elections. But his promises of wider reform have never quite materialized, and now his economic problems are deepening. On October 11, Standard & Poor’s responded to the kingdom’s deteriorating public finances by cutting its sovereign credit rating from stable to negative. Small wonder that Mohammed has just headed off to the Gulf States to solicit a bit of additional financia
And then there’s that other trusty U.S. ally, Saudi Arabia. The House of Saud, with its nearly limitless financial resources, would seem to be among the least endangered of the region’s established regimes. And yet, almost unnoticed by the outside world, the rebellion in the kingdom’s Eastern Province continues to smolder.
The province, where the kingdom’s richest oil fields are located, is also home to a large population of Shiites, who have endured persistent discrimination for their religious beliefs since the founding of modern Saudi Arabia in the 1920s. (The ruling family as well as a majority of the population are extremely conservative Sunnis who generally regard Shiism as a heretical offshoot of Islam.) The latest round of protests in the region started in February 2011, and they’ve continued ever since. The government poured additional fuel on the fire by arresting a popular Shiite cleric in July 2012. (He seems to have attracted the particular ire of the authorities by calling upon his followers to celebrate the death of Interior Minister Crown Prince Nayef in June, who was widely hated by the Shiites for his orchestration of the measures against them.)
The Saudi security forces have never enjoyed a reputation for restraint, and they seem to have had little hesitation about using force against the mostly unarmed protestors. As recently as September 26, three men were killed in the area of Qatif during a raid by Saudi law-enforcement organs. It’s clear that the region remains on edge.
So do these problems pose a direct challenge to the regime? Probably not any time soon. But the lingering rage among Saudi Shiites shouldn’t be seen as merely a local problem. Their discontent slots neatly into the pattern of sectarian tension that is becoming increasingly important throughout the region.
Qatif, it happens, is just a short distance away from Bahrain, where a Shiite majority doggedly continues to stage protests in the face of a brutal crackdown by the Sunni dynasty that rules the country. (It’s no coincidence that the Saudis dispatched troops to Bahrain to help the ruling Khalifa family put down the unrest there.) The arrests of opposition activists continue. The latest took place just this week, when the authorities detained Mohammed al-Maskati, the leader of a group called the "Bahrain Youth Society for Human Rights." The government is still bombarding demonstrators with tear gas — most recently on October 12. Iran, meanwhile, continues to assail both the Saudis and the Bahrainis for their treatment of their Shiite minorities — a reminder that the Sunni-Shiite divide will continue to bedevil the region for a quite a while to come.
Put all these stories together and it seems reasonable to conclude that the Arab Spring still has its share of surprises left. The fact that the situation in each of these countries is at once intensely local and yet linked with larger regional themes (such as political Islam and the rising political self-awareness of Arab Shiites) merely adds to the unpredictability factor. And you may have noticed that all of these stories have one common denominator: In each case the government in question is an important ally of the United States.
And that, of course, raises the question of whether Washington has the power to influence matters for the better. There are many indications that U.S. policymakers have been gently trying to nudge the monarchs in question towards reform. In Bahrain, for example, the Americans have made efforts to mediate between the government and the Shiite opposition parties.
The question remains, though, whether nudging will triumph over volatility. The United States is unlikely to ratchet up the pressure for liberalization for fear of losing key strategic assets — above all its naval base in Bahrain, its intimate military relationships with the Saudis and the Kuwaitis, and its privileged ties to the monarchs in Morocco and Jordan (the latter one of the few Arab countries to maintain civil relations with Israel).
This is likely to remain the same whether the next president’s name is Obama or Romney. But no one should expect the citizens of these countries to play along.