Center for World Conflict and Peace

Center for World Conflict and Peace

Thursday, March 17, 2011

A Conversation: The Impact of the 2011 Uprisings on World Politics, Part V

Yohanes was supposed to write this response, but he has been having Internet problems in Jakarta. So in the meantime, I am taking over for him. Just to let everyone know, after this post, Yohanes will have the final word, concluding our conversation on the uprisings. Next week we will begin another multi-part conversation, focusing on the political, military, security, and strategic dynamics of the war in Afghanistan.

The last post in this conversation (which was mine) posed a few questions about al-Qaeda (AQ). The overall theme of these questions wondered whether the uprisings have served as a setback or a boon to AQ. In my view, the uprisings are mostly–though not entirely–bad news for AQ. Let us explore this in more detail.

The uprisings have demonstrated four main findings that cut against AQ’s beliefs, arguments, and prominence in the Middle East/North Africa.

1. People, by and large, want democracy, not an Islamic state.

2. As we have seen in the cases of Egypt and Tunisia, political change can occur via peaceful means. Contrary to the views of AQ, violence was not required to overthrow the governments and regimes in these two countries. For almost three decades, Ayman al-Zawahiri (Osama’s right hand man), an Egyptian, has plotted to remove Mubarak forcibly from power, yet he was unsuccessful–often, he found himself in jail for his activities. It was the people power movements, with their emphasis on peaceful civil disobedience, that won the day.

3. AQ played no role in the uprisings. The organization was merely an observer to seismic shifts in the region.

4. Leaders of AQ did not see these events coming nor were they prepared to deal with them. Indeed, they have struggled to formulate a coherent public response or statement to the uprisings. Bin Laden has been quiet. Al-Zawahiri, recently issued three statements, but none of them addressed the uprisings in the region. Experts who have viewed these tapes believe that they were created before the governments in Egypt and Tunisia were toppled.

In a recent opinion piece in The Washington Post, Michael Scheuer, a former CIA hand in charge of the Osama bin Laden unit, presents a much bleaker way of looking at the impact of the uprisings on AQ. The people power movements managed to destabilize the Middle East/North Africa and overthrow governments that were hostile to AQ. In his words, Scheuer writes: "All of this amounts to an enormous strategic step forward for al-Qaeda. That these victories have come with virtually no investment of manpower or money by the terrorist network, and with self-defeating applause from the Facebook-obsessed, Twitter-addled West, only makes them all the sweeter for bin Laden."

And according to Scheuer, AQ has benefited in other ways. He sees the new governments as no longer a bulwark against Islamic terrorism. The domestic environments will be more conducive to the rise of radical speech and organizations in mainstream politics. Moreover, in his view, AQ will now become an even more "geographically widespread movement." In sum, the uprisings have given AQ much more space to operate freely, thereby putting American interests directly in jeopardy.

But the bulk of Scheuer’s arguments are overly pessimistic–really, a series of worst-case judgments–and, simply put, not completely grounded in fact or sound logic. Let us explore further his arguments–the arguments he makes as well as those he overlooks.

1. Even before the uprisings, AQ operated–to one degree or another–in more than 60 countries. It was already a "geographically widespread movement." The practice of "virtual jihad," which has transformed AQ from a hierarchical, centralized organization to a very decentralized movement of sleeper cells and lone wolf attackers, was the big game changer in how and where terrorism occurred. And that phenomenon has been ongoing for 9 plus years, ever since the U.S. began to take tough steps against AQ headquarters in response to the 9/11 attacks.

2. Just because the U.S. may, and probably will, lose influence in the Middle East/North Africa, there is no reason to assume AQ will fill the vacuum. There is no zero-sum relationship between the U.S. and AQ in the region. It is certainly possible that governments like Egypt and Tunisia will take policy positions that are independent of the U.S., but also remain independent of and adversarial to AQ.

3. Yes, we will inevitably see a greater role for Muslim groups and political parties in policy affairs and governing. But the specific identity and interests of these actors are to be determined in the future. Why should we assume that they will be radical and extremist? And why assume that these actors, regardless of their political attitudes, will capture the state? Egypt and Tunisia could go the way of Iran, but they could also follow the lead of Turkey and Indonesia.

4. Scheuer seems to think that Muslims will be overly permissive of extremist talk or action, and that they will be very reluctant to clamp down on Islamic terror groups. He paints a portrait that suggests the new governments very well could be complicit with terror activities. The problem is that there is little evidence to support this claim. Apparently, Scheuer has not taken a look at survey data lately, which is important because these new democratizing governments will be increasingly sensitive to and impacted by public opinion. Support for AQ, terrorism, and violence is way down in Muslim countries over the last 5-7 years. What has happened is that, as AQ emerged from the shadowy underground (in places like Afghanistan) and exposed the world to its actions and beliefs, more and more people have come to find AQ quite repugnant. The clinching factor has been AQ’s willingness to use violence against fellow Muslims (in Pakistan, Iraq, Somalia, etc.).

5. Sure, the transition to democracy can be hijacked by radicals and extremists of different varieties, leading to host of bad outcomes. Columbia University Professor Jack Snyder has written a number of articles and books on this very subject. Snyder’s bottom line is that nascent, weak democratic institutions, processes, and norms provide the kind of environment in which the state is more likely to be hijacked by destructive narrow interests. Naturally, most people think of how democratic elections led to the rise of Nazi Germany. But we can think of more subtle forms of this general pattern. For instance, think of current-day Pakistan. There, since the fall of the Musharraf dictatorship, we see the military as the dominant force in Pakistani democratic politics, distorting Islamabad’s policies in many nefarious ways (refusing to target AQ and the Taliban on Pakistani soil, fomenting anti-American sentiments, prioritizing conflict with India over terrorism, etc.).

The problem is that there is no necessary relationship between democratization and these nasty outcomes. Why? Some countries can build and consolidate democratic institutions and practices in a fairly short time, whereas others fail to do so. The latter group consists of the democratizing countries that typically experience all sorts of problems (think of Yugoslavia and Rwanda in the 1990s). The former group avoids such perils because most of the political and economic rules of the road have been fully and fairly established and internalized, which helps to eliminate potential sources of confusion, resentment, and conflict. Here, think about Central and Eastern Europe in the late 1980s and early 1990s as examples.

At this point, it is still possible that Egypt and Tunisia (and any other new democratizing state) will construct the type of democratic institutions and processes that leads these countries to avoid Scheuer’s concerns–that is, the state being captured by narrow, radicalized, Islamic interests (either those indigenous to Egypt or ones from abroad, like Saudi Arabia). It is way too early in their transitions to democracy to think that the door to success has closed. And in fact, it is already an encouraging sign that Egypt and Tunisia are working to empower many voices (including the youth, which is atypical of democratizing states) and proceeding in an orderly, ruled-based fashion. I hope this trend continues.

Right now, I am most worried about Libya, for several reasons. Prolonged civil wars act as a hornet’s nest, attracting local militants as well as those from around the world to join the struggle, and together this mixing of forces can turn into a dangerous brew of radicalism and violence. For instance, the intermingling of local and foreign fighters during civil wars in Lebanon and Afghanistan eventually shifted local struggles, with local interests and concerns, to global jihads, with worldwide grievances and demands. And there have been rumblings that AQ-affiliated members in the region will seek to join their Muslim brothers’ attempt to overthrow Gaddafi and then aim to install an Islamic state in Libya. If true, just like in Lebanon and Afghanistan, the participation of AQ will negatively impact the interests and motives of the rebels, making them more violent and nihilistic. Just as concerning, lawless, unpoliced, and ungoverned areas, which often emerge in civil war settings, provide effective playgrounds for terrorists and their sympathizers to set up camp, recruit foot soldiers, coordinate activities, train for violent campaigns, and smuggle weapons. So even if AQ does not join the fight, its members can take advantage of the situation by moving into areas of Libyan territory and causing mayhem.

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