When the Arab awakening swept through the Middle East last year, with waves of democratic protesters swallowing tyrants in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya, no one could confidently predict what kind of political order would emerge from the ruins. Certainly the stability of the old order of autocracies was shattered, hopefully along with their characteristic corruption and stagnation. In the long term, there is still reason to hope for a democratic transformation similar to the one that eventually emerged in Eastern Europe at the end of the Cold War.
The danger that most concerned many U.S. policy analysts at the time, however, was a repeat of the Iranian revolution of 1979, which was hijacked by Islamic theocrats. The anti-American protests that targeted U.S. embassies throughout the Middle East last week suggest that at least in the near term, the greater peril may come from the model of Lebanon: a weak democracy with inadequate institutions and security forces that are unable or unwilling to confront the Islamic extremists in their midst. In the case of Lebanese Hezbollah, the extremists exploited that weakness to form a shadow state that has become too powerful to uproot.
Of course, the common thread that runs through the anti-American protests in Egypt, Libya, and Yemen is an anti-Islamic film made in California that went viral on the Internet. Events of the Arab Spring have also driven home the point that each of these countries is distinct, with different cultures and ethnic tapestries.
Yet there are similarities that have emerged in the past year in the fledgling democracies of the Arab Spring. In Libya, for instance, the newly-elected government has been unable to enforce its authority over as many as 200 private, well-armed militias. These bands, which have no shortage of weapons looted from Muammar el-Qaddafi’s arsenals, range from ordinary Libyans to virulently anti-Western Salafists to hard-core supporters of al-Qaida (such as the shadowy Islamic extremist group Ansar al-Sharia, which some experts suspect in the death of U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans).
“This [attack] didn’t come out of the blue,” said Barak Barfi, a research fellow at the New America Foundation who spent six months in Libya during the revolution. There were earlier attacks in the country this summer, he noted, including a rocket-propelled grenade fired at the British ambassador’s convoy and a bomb attack at the gates of the U.S. consulate. If Libya doesn’t move to integrate its militias and create national security services that can deal with these fomenting threats, Barfi said in a phone call from Turkey, “there are going to be long-term problems with these Islamist groups because they’re going to be able to grow, create an infrastructure, draft more people. Then we’re not going to be looking at a couple hundred people ... but thousands.”
While the assault on the American Embassy in Cairo appears to have been spontaneous in reaction to the anti-Muslim video posted on YouTube, the attacks there also highlight the security void that has developed since last year’s revolution. Egypt’s security services, deeply unpopular after violently suppressing protesters, have been largely marginalized—and jihadists have responded by ramping up their presence in the Sinai and carrying out attacks like last August’s deadly cross-border assault on southern Israel.
The U.S. Embassy was also overrun in Yemen, another Arab Spring country and home to al-Qaida’s most active branch. Because security forces have been focused on unrest in the capital for much of the past year, al-Qaida has been able to seize significant territory in the south. Until the new president, Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, directed a successful offensive there, militants actually governed several major cities. Since the government’s offensive, the group is suspected of a string of attacks, including a recent assassination attempt that nearly killed the country’s defense minister in his convoy.
The only magnet more alluring to Islamic extremists than weak central governments and security forces is outright conflict and organized violence, especially conflicts that break down along the region’s ethnic fault lines, whether between Sunni and Shiite Muslims, or Muslims and religious minorities. For instance, unrest coupled with the sectarian divide in Syria, between Sunni Muslims and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s minority Alawite clan that runs the country, has given al-Qaida and other groups that share its ideology a “golden opportunity,” according to Bruce Hoffman, director of the Center for Security Studies at Georgetown University. The Syrian rebel group Jabhat al-Nusra, suspected of links to al-Qaida, is gaining prominence as it brings more-experienced foreign fighters to the front lines, making it “far more active in recent months and far more consequential," Hoffman said.
The fight against Assad affords jihadists a rallying point against what they consider an Alawite infidel, according to a recent op-ed by Ed Husain, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. “In the event of Assad’s falling, al-Qaeda will probably gain de facto control of parts of Syria to serve as a new strategic base for jihadis in the Middle East, or at least enjoy tribal protection in the broader regions with Iraq and Jordan,” Husain wrote in National Review. “A new government in Syria not only will be indebted to these fighters, but also will be in need of their cooperation to minimize the potential of militias fighting each other.”
Of course, the first Arab tyranny to recently attempt the transition to democracy is Iraq, where political paralysis in the Shiite-led government has breathed new life into Sunni Al Qaeda in Iraq, which has launched a string of devastating bombings this year responsible for hundreds of Iraqi deaths. As if any more evidence was needed, Iraq’s experience suggests that the transition to democracy in the Arab world will continue to be contested violently by Islamic extremists who sense opportunity in weakness.