The Current Crises in the Arab Region and Potential Spillover Effects
In recent months, the attention of the international community has focused on the socio-economic and political crises in the Arab region which covers the Middle East and North Africa. Although the crises remain mainly concentrated in Libya, Egypt, Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Palestine, the effects are being felt by all countries in the region and beyond, especially in Europe which has become a destination for the hundreds of thousands of refugees and immigrants. The sheer number of displaced people and loss of lives has given much urgency to find workable solutions to the current crises. The problem however is that approaches to external intervention have continued to be less effective with ISIS, Al-Qaeda and other radical Islamist groups narrating such interventions as “war by Christians against Islam”. In the absence of effective conflict resolution, will the current crises build momentums to engulf the entire region? Would radical Islamist groups be able to topple regimes in strategically important countries like Saudi Arabia and then aspire for regional hegemony? What would be the implication for international peace and security?
Violent conflicts are nothing new to the Arab region. The 1960s and 1970s saw the Israeli-Palestinian conflict drawing many Arab countries. The American-mediated Camp David peace agreement between Egypt and Israel and subsequent diplomatic efforts ensured relative peace. With improving human development and favourable international environments (including cash bonanza from high oil prices), by the 1980s many of the countries of the Arab region seemed destined to join the group of the world’s rich and developed nations. But all this changed in 1991 when Iraq invaded Kuwait. Major Arab players like Egypt and Saudi Arabia fought along with the US to liberate the tiny oil-rich country. Nationalists and radical groups like Al-Qaeda got offended that Christians (Americans) were once again able to succeed in dividing and trumping Arab unity. These groups grew and expanded by continuing to feed on the crises precipitated by the wars on terror in the post-9/11 period and the recent popular uprising/Arab Spring, so that today they operate in nearly all countries of the Middle East and North Africa. One of the groups ISIS is openly propagating the creation of a caliphate (borderless) Islamic state after it overran large areas of Iraq and Syria. The brutality of civil wars and communal conflicts – especially gruesome images of massacring and beheading of hostages and prisoners - has traumatized everybody living on this planet.
Be that as it may, it would be wrong to attribute the current crises and future scenarios to Islamic radical groups alone or to think that weakening or eliminating them can provide a long term solution. There are other fundamental problems. For instance, medieval-like socio-economic and political structures subjugate the Arab masses to oppression and exploitation by powerful social and political classes. Social movements that inspired the Arab Spring failed to bring about fundamental changes.
Second, antagonistic relationships among the different ethnic, sectarian and tribal groups perpetuate relentless contestation for identify, power and access to resources. Modern Arab states subdue and control these groups through various means including material incentives and the use of the states’ coercive power. In crisis situations, historical group enmities among groups re-emerge to culminate into brutal communal warfare, as in Iraq, Syria, Yemen and Libya.
Third, in the era of globalization, some segments of the intelligentsia and middle class have increasingly looked to pan-Arabism and Islamic radicalism as sources of inspiration to protect their identities and cultures. They bitterly oppose Western political and cultural hegemony in the region, and denounce Arab governments for their subordination to the West. Clearly, such influential groups may share sentiments and perspectives with radical Islamist groups, but the strategy of terrorism – indiscriminate killings of men, women and children – to achieve legitimate power in society is seen as un-Islamic and offensive to Muslims around the world.
These and other forces do not necessarily support radical Islam, yet they have become easy targets by offshoots of radical groups in every Arab country. The Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt rode to power through elections in 2011 because it was good at articulating popular frustrations from every segment of Egyptian society. Although the Muslim Brotherhood did not stay in power for long, its clever political strategy will certainly be replicated by groups like Wahhabists in Saudi Arabia who have continued to appeal to egalitarian Islamic values, including wealth distribution and dignity and respect for millions of (Muslim) migrant workers from across the world. Granting citizenship to stateless (Saudi born) immigrant children will in itself enable the Wahabbists to mobilize millions of fanatic supporters.
The influence of Western powers is waning away along with their declining reliance on the Middle East oil, more so as Americans succeed in extracting shell oil to help meet domestic energy needs. This trend, added with the Afghanistan and Iraq war fatigue, means that Americans and their Western allies might no longer rush to help Middle Eastern and North American governments overcome their political vulnerabilities. One indication of fatigue by major Western powers is their reluctance to make a clear commitment to managing the current refugee and immigrant crisis in Europe, leaving the middle power Germany and other European countries with a choice of acting in their own.
Perhaps ISIS, Al-Qaeda and other Islamist groups that currently ravage Arab societies could fade away when the time comes for coordinated and effective military responses by Arab governments and their allies, or when they lose relevance and self-disintegrate. Even then, as long as there are issues of poverty and marginalization, new generations of social movements would emerge to assert legitimacy as the voice of the great Arab masses. Whether these movements would pursue strategies of social, economic and political reform or revoke Islamist radicalism as a guiding ideology, must remain to be seen. Perhaps, by that time, our narration or analysis of the crisis in the Arab region would also do justice to public debate by no labelling any social moment as radical Islamist or fundamentalist posed to stir up religious and sectarian divisions and conflicts in societies. At this particular moment in time, social movements all over the Arab world are being hijacked and absorbed by radical groups who are pursuing a religious agenda of non-tolerance for other believe systems and forms of governance. In Syria, even anti-Assad rebels trained by Americans have surrendered to Al-Qaeda with their armaments.
Responses to the current crises by the international community should go beyond military intervention to address longstanding socio-economic and political grievances in Arab societies. This would require promoting programs of reform that transform existing socio-economic and political structures to the benefits of the Arab masses. If the outcomes of the Arab Spring can provide any useful lesson, it is the failure or reluctance of the international community to help national governments manage and transform the crises through open dialogue and political compromises. The folks at the American State Department and others were more concerned with encouraging and supporting the overthrow of regimes in tune with their perception that regime change creates a favourable condition for democratization. Instead, post-Arab Spring situations resulted in the emergence of different groups competing to fill power vacuums using violent means, and in the process, throwing societies into anarchy and chaos.
So far the socio-economic and political crises in the Arab region has spewed an impact mostly to Europe in the form of massive refugee flows and fear and anxiety over public security risks with some suspecting that ISIS and Al-Qaeda Jihadist fighters might be marching with refugees to enter Europe and start war on its soil. The worst scenario could be the spread of the current crises across the Arab region leading to the weakening or collapse of states and their replacement by radical Islamist regimes that do not tolerate other forms of governance or belief systems. There are actually emerging narratives that Saudi Arabia (a strategically important country in the region) would be prone to political crisis with a growing sign of power wrangling among the royal family. Yet, competition for power among the upper echelons of the Saudi ruling class to retain the status quo may have less potential to create a crisis time-bomb, compared with a scenario involving the staging of the 1960s and 1970s style military coup as a result of war fatigue from the Saudi involvement in the Yemen crisis. This can result either in charismatic strong man like Egypt’s General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi taking power to pursue modernization initiatives or an opportunist or opportunists who create an alliances with Wahabbists to form a regime that would waste no time to aspire for regional political and religious hegemony. In this later scenario, the implications for international peace and security are self-evident.
Closer geographical proximity to and historical relationship with the Middle East and North Africa make the Horn of African countries easy reaches for expansionist Islamist radical groups. And, despite relative peace and economic growth in recent decades, the Horn region in general remains faced with security challenges. Most of Somalia is still controlled by Al-Shaebab. Sudan and South Sudan have domestic political problems. Kenya has been vulnerable to cross-border attacks by Al-Shaebab. Eritrea has become a major source of refugees (a sign of declining state). Armed groups camped in Eritrea have been preparing (now for almost a decade) to wage war against the Ethiopian government. Ethiopia’s porous borders with unstable neighbouring states pose additional security challenges. In a nutshell, weak and unstable states in the Horn of Africa will become prone to terrorism, cross-border banditry, drug trafficking, human trafficking, and other criminal activities, all of which create fertile grounds for implanting jihadist cells that flourish and expand in crisis situations. This scenario cannot be ruled out if the current crises in the Middle East and North Africa continue unabated with potential collapse of states and their replacement by expansionist radical Islamist regimes.
The short-lived Muslim Brotherhood dominated government in Egypt expressed hostility towards Ethiopia’s national interests immediately after seizing state power. It may make little sense to speculate whether or not a government in Saudi Arabia, Yemen or other Arab country dominated by Wahabbists or a radical Islamic group will pursue a policy of destabilization against Ethiopia, because an aggressive regime will always have an aggressive foreign policy. What is certain is that the effective prevention of any spillover effect from the crises in the Arab region would be a function of the strength of Ethiopian state to protect its territorial sovereignty and institutions in society. It is therefore important that Ethiopia develops a strategy that coordinates the work of diplomatic and military intelligence units in identifying and assessing, on ongoing basis, security, political and commercial risks from the crises in the Middle East and North Africa and mitigation measures. This includes enhancing Ethiopia’s defense capabilities along with technological development and ongoing training of specialized sectors of Ethiopian defense. A long term naval agreement with Djibouti should be sought. Ethiopia should also be able to use IGAD and other international cooperative frameworks to support neighbouring Horn of Africa countries politically and militarily to withstand the expanding influence of radical Islam, if the situation arises. Effective national security measures ensure the safety, security and dignity of Ethiopians and citizens of other countries on Ethiopian soil including diplomats, investors, aid workers and tourists, as well as sustain the right conditions that are necessary for continued economic, social and political development in the entire Horn of Africa region.
November 1, 2015