US Foreign Policy
Commentary

The Security Agenda for a Changing Middle East

in Program

By Ellen Laipson – The
Arab revolt that began in late 2010 throws many assumptions about the Middle
East and regional security into question. 
States that were once considered strong have shown themselves to be
hollow at the top, and Arab societies are showing unprecedented courage.  The power equation within many countries has
shifted, although it has certainly not found a new equilibrium yet.  This leads to many uncertainties about
security: security for states, for relations between states, and for the newly
assertive citizens within states.  In the
region and in the international community, there is a critical need to be
working tactically and strategically on a very wide security agenda.

The
political models of the modern Middle East have concentrated considerable power
in the security services that surround a king or president; these “mukhabarat”
(intelligence) states preyed on their citizens to protect leaders from any
source of dissent, and created a culture of fear and mistrust.  That model has been destroyed successively
over three decades by revolution in the case of Iran,
by US intervention in the
case of Iraq, and by popular
uprising in the cases of Egypt
and Tunisia.  One can worry that in each of those cases, the
authoritarian impulses of the state can creep back, but democratic processes
and values remain the most powerful antidote to such a trend.

Other
states in the Middle East have suffered from the opposite ailment, where weak
states based on careful power-sharing arrangements or colonial legacies never
fully professionalized their security sector. 
In Lebanon and Palestine (and post-Saddam Iraq), the international
community, through the United Nations or western powers, has provided direct
support and security assistance to compensate for security deficits.  But that is not a long-term solution.

The
new turbulence in the region provides many opportunities for reforming
state-society relations, and security is a powerful component of that
process.  Security is increasingly seen
as a public good, a service that states provide to their citizens, rather than
the exclusive purview of the powerful. 
Of the countries in new transitions, Tunisia is the most receptive to
rethinking its security culture, and its partners are offering to help in
lustration (the cleansing) of the police force, for example. In Egypt, while
the military retains considerable power, it generally enjoys popular respect
(in contrast to the police) and appears willing to minimally accommodate the
interests of newly empowered citizens.  Iraq is nearly
a decade into the process of reconstituting and retraining its security forces,
and getting the balance right between professionalization and embracing the
sectarian and ethnic identity politics of the country has proven tricky. 

Several
countries are experiencing national crises that do not yet lend themselves to
various reform processes.  Libya is at war
internally, with NATO as a reluctant combatant alongside totally inexperienced
opposition fighters.  Despite the
uncertainties, it is not too early to begin to work with the transitional
council on reconstituting the security sector for a post-Qadhafi Libya. Syria’s
revolt is the starkest case of security forces loyal to a regime rather than the
society as a whole; should Assad fall, a radical restructuring of the security
sector could well be needed or demanded by the country’s rage from decades of
repression.  Yemen’s crisis is in the
political realm and only partly playing out in armed conflict, but should the
power structure change in Sanaa, it will have implications for the armed forces
and police of that fractured polity. 

Beyond
these confusing and unfinished national stories, there are regional security
implications of the Arab revolt.  Not all,
if any, will lead to full scale conflict, but the shifts in power balances
between neighbors, the spillover from a country in crisis to a more stable
neighbor, or old grievances resurfacing from the turbulence in the region
suggest a long list of possible flashpoints.

  • Egypt’s course has direct effect on Israel and
    Palestine.  A dramatic shift in
    Egypt’s approach to Gaza could raise tensions in Israeli-Gaza relations,
    and exacerbate problems in establishing Palestinian political unity.
  • Tunisia faces a daunting cross-border challenge from
    Libyan refugees and from displaced migrant workers, whose numbers could
    overwhelm the country at a time of economic and political weakness. 
  • Syria’s crisis is creating political and economic
    pressures on Lebanon, still working to establish its own political
    competence free of domination from Damascus.  In both the short term and the long
    term, Lebanon’s political equilibrium can be easily disrupted by Syria’s
    problems.
  • Iraq and Saudi Arabia, already plagued by deep
    mistrust since Prime Minister Maliki came to power, could face sharper
    tensions over Bahrain.  Iraq has
    felt strong solidarity with the Shia majority, while the Saudis have
    supported and protected the Sunni royal family in power in Manama.

Over
time, a more salutary realignment of regional security relations could
emerge.  A more confident and active
Egypt, once it has a new constitution and a new government, would change Arab
politics.  Iraq, despite its political
growing pains, will almost certainly be a stronger and richer country by the
end of the decade.  An Arab world with
Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Iraq all pulling their weight could be a more effective
counterbalance to Iran’s ambitions than any effort by external powers to thwart
Iran’s rise.  The banding together of the
six Gulf Cooperation Council members in support of Bahrain could signal a
greater willingness of that organization to coordinate its policies, with
possible benefit to regional security vis-à-vis Iran.  Whether this potential realignment augurs
well for the democratic aspirations of Arab citizens is another matter; it is a
reminder that “security for whom” remains a critical and unanswered
question. 

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