In his State of the Union address, President Obama showed a stunning lack of reality on terrorism and the Arab Spring. The President’s statement saluting “the courage and sacrifice of those who serve in dangerous places at great personal risk” unfortunately rings hollow when one considers the Administration’s treatment of the Benghazi terrorist attack. While the Administration has insisted that al-Qaeda is losing steam, the terrorist network and its affiliates are growing in places like Libya and Mali.
Perspective is badly needed. Two years after Mohammed Bouazizi set himself on fire on the streets of his hometown in Tunisia, the political makeup of North Africa and the Middle East are unrecognizable. The fight against injustice has morphed into a scramble for power. The fight for democracy has deteriorated back to the status quo. And Islamist militants have exploited the gaping power vacuum. Looking at the countries affected by the Arab Spring, a pattern of instability remains.
Following the ouster of the Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali regime, Tunisia experienced an easier government transition than others. With a secular tradition, well-educated population, and sizeable middle class, Tunisia was better equipped to overcome the challenge. Yet, the election of the Islamist Al-Nahda party, previously banned under Ben Ali, exceeded expectations in the legislative elections—a harbinger of what was to come in Egypt and Libya.
The future of Tunisia’s stability is questionable. Last week, protestors took to the streets following the assassination of the opposition figure, Chokri Belaid. Many in Tunisia are dissatisfied with the Islamist-led government and demand that the Tunisian people are better represented.
Since Egypt’s dictator Hosni Mubarak was toppled, the Egyptian people have lacked a stable government. The Muslim Brotherhood, banned under Mubarak, took advantage of its broad support and was the clear winner in the country’s first democratic elections. Yet Egypt’s new president, Mohammed Morsi, is little more than an autocrat under a different guise. In November, he granted himself sweeping powers over the judiciary and other branches of government and the Egyptian security forces—who once cracked down on the Muslim Brotherhood—are now its enforcers. Additionally, Morsi has set a troubling new foreign policy agenda. His government has distanced itself from Washington while cozying up to China and Hamas (a U.S.-designated terrorist organization), improving relations with Iran, and violating its peace treaty with Israel.
Since the fall of Muammar Qadhafi in September 2011, Libya’s transitional government has been unable to implement rule of law throughout much of the country. The September 11, 2012, terrorist attack on the U.S. special mission in Benghazi, which killed four Americans including Ambassador Christopher Stevens, was a direct result of the country’s rampant instability. While the Libyan government moved quickly to denounce the attack and has offered its cooperation in finding the terrorists, little has been achieved in bringing the perpetrators to justice.
The instability in North Africa has also trickled to the Sahel and indirectly affected Mali specifically. Last Spring, Islamist militants occupied the northern part of the country, prompting French military intervention last month. Militant violence has also spilled over into Algeria where a terrorist attack, spearheaded by a former leader of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), killed three Americans.
After a two-year civil war, Syria’s Bashar al-Assad has yet to cave. The Syrian opposition movement has levied significant blows to the regime, yet support from Iran and Russia has helped to keep Assad in power. Despite more than 60,000 deaths and hundreds of thousands of people displaced, the international community has done little to speed the regime’s collapse.
In the midst of the carnage, terrorist groups such as the Al-Nusra Front, an al-Qaeda affiliate, have infiltrated the country and exploited the instability. The United States is currently assisting Turkey, a NATO ally, in protecting its border against potential ballistic missile attacks, yet there is no strategy for resolving the crisis.
Yemen’s revolution resulted in little more than a return to the status quo. Last February, President Ali Abdullah Saleh stepped down from power. Saleh was succeeded by Abed Rabu Mansour Hadi, who served as his vice president. Hadi, who represents continuity much more than genuine change, now faces enormous challenges in stabilizing Yemen, one of the poorest and most turbulent Arab countries.
Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), headquartered in Yemen, remains a threat to U.S. and international security. During the revolution, AQAP attempted to consolidate its power in the south, occupying several major towns. While Yemen’s government has cooperated in the Obama Administration’s frequent use of drone strikes, it has failed to curb AQAP’s activity.
From Arab Spring to Islamist Winter
The Arab Spring has ushered in an unprecedented political transformation that has deteriorated into an “Islamist Winter.” The elections that have been held have resulted in victories for anti-Western Islamist political parties that are ideologically predisposed to oppose U.S. foreign policy goals.
Although al-Qaeda and its affiliates played a small role in the initial phases of the Arab uprisings, they have exploited the power vacuum and are now well placed to expand their influence. It is in the U.S. national interest, as well as in the interests of U.S. allies, to prevent Islamist extremists from hijacking the unfinished revolutions and imposing totalitarian dictatorships in the affected countries. That will not happen without focused leadership from Washington.