By Steve Clemons

Successful anti-government uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt have inspired protesters to demand leadership changes in Iran, Yemen, Jordan, Libya and Bahrain. Riot police stormed a protest camp in Manama, Bahrain, overnight, and medical officials reported four people were killed. There also are reports that more than a dozen demonstrators have been killed in Libya.

The spread of unrest across North Africa and the Mideast raises many questions about where the region is headed and what U.S. policy should be. Here are some answers:

Is the government of any other country likely to be overthrown, as in Egypt?

It’s not easy to see which governments may fall or survive this current trend, but it seems entirely reasonable that many of the regimes in North Africa and the Mideast are going to be seriously challenged and that one or more will probably change leadership in the near term. Much of the region is wobbly right now. Some that seem more wobbly at the moment include Bahrain, Yemen, Morocco, Jordan, even Iran.  But these states have different government structures and different methods of controlling their publics. Iran’s army, for instance, already has shown an unwillingness to play the same role in these revolts that the Egyptian army did.  While there are many different grievances driving those protesting, one of the key issues is economic. Egypt, for example, has more than 40 percent of its population living at or below world poverty levels, and like much of the region has a “youth bulge” of many young people coming of work age with few or no jobs for them. But basic rights also are part of this widespread ripple that some are calling a “dignity revolution.”


In Iran, the government violently quashed similar protests in 2009. Will the protesters have more success this time?

In Iran, the government plays for keeps and seems to have few inhibitions about cracking down on protesters. The key thing to watch in Iran are splits in the leadership and the relative power of factions rather than what the state is doing to the people in the streets. There are mullahs and factional leaders, even in Iran’s Revolutionary Guard, who feel that President Ahmadenijad and Ayatollah Khamenei have undermined the integrity of the nation, its interests and economy, and even the spirit of the Islamic revolution. It recently was learned from high level Revolutionary Guard deserters that there are major differences of opinion inside the highest ranks of the IRGC and government. Seeing these splits widen and seeing the current leadership constrained and rolled back may give the protesters more of a chance to succeed. It is likely, however, that the Iranian government will be more decisive in deploying violence against protesters and will cling to power more tenaciously than the Mubarak franchise did.

What’s at stake for the United States as protests spread across the Mideast?

The United States has tended to deal with heads of states, oil sheikhs, and generals in the Middle East in order to secure its national security interests, which range from stabilizing Middle East oil and energy production to working against strains of radicalized Islamists to securing partners in stability, if not peace, in an equilibrium with Israel, which is a close strategic ally of the United States. America could lose its dominant role in managing the political and supply dimensions of oil and energy if hostile regimes come to power. The United States has not invested in knowing and engaging with opposition leaders in most of the Middle East, particularly in regimes with which we have close relations. That means that the influence of the United States on aspiring groups who may come into leading government roles in some of these countries may be minor. But this can be overplayed. States typically have core interests no matter who is running the political machinery, so it’s possible to imagine the United States working out relationships with governments that emerge after the people-power revolutions that are under way.

What role is the Obama administration playing as the turmoil grows?

The U.S. government is trying to shore up key “principles” that those governing and rebelling adhere to. The Obama administration consistently has called for no violence on either side of the equation, either by those protesting or by the governments being protested against. President Obama also has demanded that the universal human rights of assembly and protest be respected, and that if the situation is clear that the legitimacy of the older order is washed up, that a credible, inclusive political transition from a totalitarian state to democracy be moved forward. The administration does not want to send a signal, however, that it has become a regime-change fanatic. Obama has stated that these affairs belong to the citizens of these countries, and that the United States cannot affect the outcomes, cannot protect dictators and cannot help assure victory for those in the streets. What Obama is doing is shifting U.S. policy to a “pragmatic democracy agenda” in which the United States continues to stand by key allies, whether illiberal governments or democracies. But, if the core social contract between the governed and those governing explodes, the United States will stand by its principles that people should have the determinative role in their governments.

How might this turmoil affect the Middle East peace process?  Will it bring Israelis and Palestinians any closer to a peace agreement?

This is a very fluid time and all things are possible but few are probable. The Israelis are extremely nervous about what they see in their neighborhood and the increasing empowerment of Islamic political parties and actors who have at the top of their agenda rolling back the occupation of the Palestinian territories or a hostile agenda toward Israel writ large.  It’s unclear whether Israel itself sees that its long-term security interests are helped or hurt by rushing forward a peace arrangement resulting in an independent Palestinian state. It is clear that in the absence of progress on Arab-Israeli peace, the United States decided it needed states such as Jordan and Egypt and heavily invested in them to keep them as peace partners for Israel. Had the Arab Peace Initiative succeeded and Israel secured a deal with Palestine, then Egypt and some of these other totalitarian regimes would “matter less” to the United States as Israel would have normalized relations with some 57 other Arab and Muslim countries. The Middle East peace process remains complicated and muddy, and no progress is possible until the United States and Europe consider a new strategic framework for the region — and place the importance of Israel-Palestine peace inside that framework.  That will take time — even though there is an alternative view that things are so fluid now that Israel’s negotiating position only deteriorates with more time.

One year from now, which countries in the Middle East are the most likely to be on the road to some sort of democratic government?  Which countries are most likely to be ruled by autocrats?  Which countries are most likely to be ruled by fundamental Islamists?

One year from now, nearly all of the governments will continue to be ruled by autocrats or oligarchs, perhaps even in Egypt. There is nowtotal military control in Egypt, high expectations from society for economic improvement, and no more resources to make this happen. The military may very will be running the show in Egypt, and despite a veneer of interaction with opposition groups, there might not be real democracy there for quite a number of years. Jordan is likely to work for reform but keep essentially the same form of government, trying to reach out to some younger leaders in society and reform from within. Lebanon is politically complex but Hezbollah is playing a strong role there. This doesn’t mean that fundamental Islamists are in total control, but Islamists have a lot of power in a functioning democratic context. The Lebanon model, or Turkish model, might be the best it gets for democracy in places such as Egypt and elsewhere. Saudi Arabia and Syria can be expected to continue as they are — and countries such as the UAE, Bahrain and Kuwait will be challenged to be more politically inclusive, but it’s hard to imagine stable functioning democracies in these countries at this point, particularly given the huge disparities between the population of national citizens and the number of guest workers who dwarf them. Autocracies are likely to survive in the Emirates, but they are nervous. Yemen, Morocco, Iran, even Iraq are all wobbly with populations that feel disenfranchised. Constant turmoil may simmer in all of these countries with very different political conditions, with the simmering occasionally exploding, but there is no way of saying for sure which will transform into democracies. Democracies need institutions that are able to serve the weak and those in minority in political systems. These take years to build, and the Middle East does not have much experience in the habits of this kind of institution building. Thus, while there will continue to be much disorder and much popular revolt, it’s not clear at all that democracy is the automatic successor.

Steve Clemons is founder and senior fellow of the American Strategy Program at the New America Foundation. He is part of a group of foreign policy experts that the White House consulted with during the anti-government protests in Egypt. He also is publisher of  The Washington Note.