It is not surprising that the two countries -- Tunisia and Libya -- which have managed to have elections are in North Africa; paradoxically called “the West,” Magrib, in Arabic. Tunisia, like Morocco and Algeria, has been largely under French rather than US influence. But the immolation of Mohammad Buazizi on Nov. 14, 2010 was an important factor in the ouster of long-time dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and gave impetus to the Jan. 25, 2011 revolution in Egypt and February revolution in Libya. Notably, two of these countries managed to have elections in 2011 under difficult revolutionary conditions.
It is important to note that in both Tunisia and Egypt the army did not move to crush the revolution with massive bloodshed, as some expected, particularly in Egypt with it massive army and security systems. The commanders of Tunisia’s small army determined that it was a good time to get rid of the Ben Ali regime and its French connection; the US played a small role.
This was not the case in Egypt, in which the US encouraged the army and security forces to take harsh action against the revolutionaries. Indeed, many of Egypt’s top generals were in Washington even as the revolutionaries were massing in Tahrir Square. But the momentum of the revolution was such that the US demanded prudent action on the army’s part; better managed change that massive bloodshed with no change and potential strident anti-Americanism.
The results of the Egyptian election on Jan. 11, 2012 are mixed for the US. The fact that 70 percent of the votes were won by conservative nationalist religiously oriented parties demanding a reduced role for the military in Egypt politics does not augur well for future US-Eygpt relations. During the course of the war NATO forces made 30,000 sorties over Libya and destroyed some 6,000 military targets. Despite NATO’s indispensable bombing, in the scheduled April 2012 elections, Libyans will likely following the electoral pattern of favoring religious nationalist parties that has already occurred in Tunisia and Egypt to the chagrin of the US.
Other that Libya, the only other country that was had intervention by outside forces is Bahrain. Encouraged by the US, Saudi Arabia sent an estimated 4,000 soldiers into Bahrain. The US’s 5th Fleet is based in Bahrain and crucial for the defense of the Persian Gulf, the protection of the Strait of Hormuz and against Iran for potential attack by the US and/or Israel. The problem in Bahrain is that the ruling Sunnis of Bahrain are opposed to further enfranchising of Shiites, who represent an estimated 55-60 percent of the 600,000 national population. The US and Saudi Arabia support Sunni discrimination against Shiites, fearing the spread of even greater Shiite dissent with the support of Iran -- a 73 million, 90 percent Shiite country right across the Gulf.
Two other Arab counties, Yemen and Syria, are in revolution which seems likely to continue well into 2012. Yemen has had no armed intervention as of yet as the revolution is so widespread in many parts of the country with so many different factions and tribes that even Saudi Arabia does not want to intervene. But the US considers the Bab al-Mandab Strait entry into the Red Sea as vital as the Strait of Hormuz and the Arabian Sea for the transport of oil. For this reason, Washington has established drone bases both in Yemen as well as in Djibouti, Ethiopia and Kenya.
The US also wants to remove the Assad regime from power in Syria as its army’s harsh response to opposition forces has reached unacceptable levels even by the standards of the Arab League and all of its neighbors, with the exception of the government in Baghdad, but includes Turkey, its powerful neighbor to the north.
Unlike the Arab Spring in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, it is unlikely that the results of the revolutions in Bahrain, Yemen and Syria will result in any kind of elections or wider democratic enfranchisement, especially in the latter two countries, which may well evolve into failed states -- paradoxically, one, Yemen, an ally of the US; and the other, Syria, an enemy.
The Arab Spring, with the exception of Bahrain, has served to consolidate the Arab monarchical regimes. While Jordan and Morocco experienced unrest, both King Abdullah and King Mohammad VI initiated some reforms to allow political parties slightly more say in how their countries are run. But without more reforms it is unlikely that that Abdullah and Mohammad VI will be able to continue to contain the political challenges ahead.
The Gulf Arab states have moved quickly to squelch any challenges. This is especially true with regard to Saudi Arabia. In February 2011, King Abdullah announced a $37 billion social package of national security jobs and more jobs for the religious police and religious schools. In March 2011, King Abdullah announced a further $93 billion in handouts. State employees are to receive a minimum of 3,000 riyals per month, bonuses for public sector workers and students and more, better and cheaper housing.
Saudi Arabia also did not neglect its defense. In October it signed a $60 billion arms deal with the US to be fulfilled over the next decade. In December, Washington and Riyadh announced that the two countries had signed a $30 billion deal for the US to provide 84 new Boeing F-15SA aircraft and to modernize 70 existing aircraft, munitions, parts and training and maintenance contracts.
In addition, Saudi Arabia is purported to have pledged to provide $20 billion in aid to Bahrain, $4 billion to Oman, $10 billion to Libya and $10 billion to Egypt. But Middle East analysts are uncertain as to how much of this promised aid has been delivered. But it is clear that the US and the Arab Gulf countries are further strengthening their military, national and domestic security as a result of the Arab Spring and challenges from Iran.
*Robert Olson is a Middle East analyst based in Lexington, Kentucky. His book “Blood, Beliefs and Ballots: The Management of Kurdish Nationalism in Turkey, 2007-2009” was recently translated into Persian.