On January 18, a CIPS discussion panel brought together Omar Ashour (Exeter University and Brookings Doha Centre), Barak Barfi (New America Foundation) and Peter Jones (University of Ottawa) to take stock of events in countries affected by the ‘Arab Spring’ of 2011. Having been asked by moderator Roland Paris to prepare remarks on Egypt, Libya and Iran, respectively, the panellists each delivered a survey of developments and prospects in each of those countries. [Watch the video of this event.]
Omar Ashour led off with an account of how nonviolent resistance and mass protests (with a relatively small amount of violence targeting police stations) led to the military’s removal of Hosni Mubarak from power. The revolutionaries, he described, comprise four distinct groups. First is the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), which took over the country and will be looking to preserve its current political prerogatives and immunities as the new Constitution is written. The Islamists (the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafist parties) were critical to the revolution’s success and won about two-thirds of the vote in last year’s election; they will be internally divided on what goals to pursue next (i.e. writing Sharia law into the Constitution, as the Salafists want, or the Muslim Brotherhood agenda of checking the powers of the SCAF and pursuing economic and security issues). The Tahrirists—the mostly young people who occupied Tahrir Square during the revolution—want to see a quick democratic transformation of Egypt. That goal, however, is not a priority of the first two groups nor of the ‘couch party’ – the non-activist critical mass of the population whose support is being sought by all sides and who supported Islamist parties in the election for their promise to advance the economy and security.
On the broader topic of Islamic parties in the ‘Arab Spring’ countries, Ashour noted that huge transformations in rhetoric, behaviour and ideology are occurring within these parties, on topics such as women’s suffrage and political representation, as well as democratic participation in government. The challenge facing these parties is whether their relatively experienced leaders will be able to influence and control their less experienced and mature followers, or whether ideological splintering and conflict will ensue.
Turning to Libya, Barak Barfi focussed on regional security developments since the fall of Qaddafi. The biggest concern, he described, is who gets control of Qaddafi’s weapons stocks—less an issue of yellowcake than of chemical weapons and arms smuggling across Libya’s huge and highly porous borders. Arms prices are dropping in the region, with many reports of weapons crossing border. Of the approximately 20,000 shoulder-fired, heat-seeking surface-to-air missiles (SAMS) that existed in Libya before the war, about 5-10,000 are now unaccounted for. (A team of 36 UN specialists is looking for them in Libya, and Canada has given $10 million to help secure these armaments.) While Egypt is intercepting many smuggled weapons, many are getting through to Gaza (where, Barfi claimed, they could enable Palestinian militants to target Israeli civilian aircraft, dramatically changing the balance of power in that conflict). If Libyan SAMS reached Al Qaeda in the Maghreb, moreover, that would greatly strengthen its to-date relatively weak capabilities.
Beyond security, Barfi added that Qaddafi’s fall will have serious economic and political repercussions for African nations such as Chad, Mali and Niger, which supported Qaddafi; in return, Libya had given them economic support, taken in their migrant workers and mediated regional conflicts. Qaddafi’s successors are sure to reverse these policies, with severe effects for these African neighbours.
On the topic of Iran’s reaction to the Arab Spring, Peter Jones noted that the past year’s events potentially brought a net loss for its leaders, given the instability in Syria (its only ally in the Mideast region, and Iran’s link to Hezbollah in Lebanon). As well, Iran is now less attractive to the mythical ‘Arab street’, seeming less youthful and democratic in contrast to the successful revolutions elsewhere in the region, and it will be less able to influence regional discourse as a result. Following the repression of the Green movement in 2009, there is currently no popular appetite for violent revolution, nor any political opposition capable of organizing one. The Arab Spring also makes Iran all the more likely to hold on to its nuclear option, noted Jones, unless economic sanctions will break down the regime’s capacity to pay the groups that keep it in power. It will not negotiate on the topic of a suspension of enrichment activities; but it might be open to discussing restrictions and monitoring.
Iran and Nuclear Weapons
The concluding discussion engaged panel members on an issue of acute topical relevance—namely, Prime Minister Harper’s recent remark that he sees Iran as having “no hesitation of using nuclear weapons” to achieve its purposes. Roland Paris asked each of the panelists to comment on the Prime Minister’s remark. All of them argued that this was a misreading of the Iranian leadership. Jones and Barfi agreed that the Iranian regime, despite its frightening religious rhetoric, is far from suicidal; and Ashour noted that there has been no religious rhetoric around the current standoff concerning its nuclear program.