The Arab Spring started with uprisings by dissidents in Tunisia, and spread across North Africa, and to the Arabian Peninsula.
Today Syria is under siege by rebel militias, and al-Qaeda linked affiliates are taking advantage of the destabilization by instituting their own style of terrorist attacks. The Islamist groups include Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), Ansar al-Sharia, and Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) which reportedly receive financing from Saudi Arabia and Qatar sources. In Syria the overthrow of Bashar al-Assad may not lead to democratic governance, a goal of the Arab Spring, as we are witnessing in North Africa. These radical Islamists with their large cache of arms can outwait the U.S. supported rebel militias, to participate in government change under Islamic law.
In a May 23, 2012 Reuters article, it was noted that the Gulf Arab countries were alarmed by the crisis in Yemen, that gave “Al-Qaeda the opportunity to develop a base from which to launch attacks around the world.” Yemeni Foreign Minister Abubakr al-Qirbi stated, “Saudi Arabia is cognizant that their stability depends on that of Yemen” fearing an uprising there was a possibility. It is also possible that the ultraconservative Wahhabists could destabilize Saudi Arabia, and neighbors Qatar, Bahrain, and Oman.
Wahhabism had its beginning in the early 1700’s in Saudi Arabia. The religious doctrine espouses the use of armed jihad. Osama bin Laden and Al-Qaeda had their roots in this movement. Wahhabists have a significant presence in the Arabian Peninsula and North Africa. Salafism which observes the tenets of early orthodox conservatives, took hold in Egypt in the mid 1800′s, and has spread to Libya, Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco. In the early 1960′s Muslim Brotherhood members migrated to Saudi Arabia, which led to an integration of Wahhabists who rejected modern influences, and Salafists following the original tenets of Islam. The goal of these ultraconservative sects would be to take the region back to the 12th Century, when Sultan Saladin controlled North Africa and Middle East under Islamic law.
After the war in Afghanistan with the Soviets ended in 1988, many of the Al-Qaeda fighters found a safe haven in Yemen, which has since become the epicenter for Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), and affiliates from Saudi Arabia and North Africa. AQAP has been involved in terrorist attacks around the world, and currently is focusing on its backyard, with on-going attacks in Syria. President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi of Yemen has been battling AQAP, and its new affiliate Ansar al-Sharia which has roots in North Africa.
Self-immolation by a Tunisian street vendor in December 2010, in protest to police brutality and corruption, sparked a growing discontent over high food and fuel prices, and unemployment. Mass street demonstrations which followed went out of control. President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, under pressure, ended his long rule in January 2011, fleeing to Saudi Arabia. A new national unity government was almost immediately undermined. Today Moncef Marzouki is president of an interim government, with new elections planned for 2013. Although democratic governance seems possible, a leading political candidate with links to Al-Qaeda and AQIM proposes to create an Islamic state.
In Egypt regime change has proven to be chaotic, with demonstrations and instability still at the forefront. Addressing the issues of poverty, rising food prices, corruption, and human rights abuses could have prevented the overthrow of President Hosni Mubarak. He had been an ally of the United States for over thirty years, supported the Arab-Israeli peace accord, and gave the U.S. military priority access to the Suez Canal. In the regime change that took place the beneficiaries were the ultraconservative Salafists who want to rule under Islamic law. In June 2012 Mohamed Morsi, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, was elected president. In the October 16, 2012 Washington Post article, “Egypt’s Islamist revival most evident at the grass roots,” it was noted that a “draft of Egypt’s new constitution, which will replace the 1971 version used under Mubarak, was released last week.” The earlier version had already stipulated “that Islam is the religion of the state and that the principles of Islamic law are the primary source of legislation.” Hence adherence thereto and enforcement would be the main issues to deal with by the Muslim Brotherhood, the drafting committee leaders.
In the aftermath of the collapse of the governments in Egypt, Libya, and Tunisia, disenchanted Islamists insisted on participating in the governing process, and instituting Sharia. In Libya, Ansar al-Sharia and AQIM involved in the overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi were also responsible for the recent attacks on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi. These same radical Salafists rejected Sufi traditions, and were responsible for destroying irreplaceable shrines, as did their Taliban cousins in Afghanistan, destroying 6th Century Buddha statues. This destructive practice will continue to escalate, until all ancient shrines are destroyed. The AQIM has also played a significant role in creating instability in Egypt, Tunisia, Algeria, Mauritania, Mali, Niger and Chad; with its tentacles spread across the Sahel.
Algeria was also plagued with similar issues as its Arab neighbors, being subjected to protests which ended in the death of several individuals. What saved President Abdelaziz Bouteflika was his quick action in reducing food prices, and modifying his oppressive government. The AQIM which originated there had been trying to overthrow his autocratic regime for years, and turn the country into an Islamic state. The AQIM had moved some of its operations to Mali in 2003. In the ensuing years with Ansar Dine and other Islamists they orchestrated the takeover of the northern part of Mali, an area the size of France.
Morocco has fared better, with King Mohammed VI allowing for new parliamentary elections, and addressing human rights issues. The autocratic ruler has temporarily survived a rebellion, by revising the constitution, and giving up some sovereign rights. Mass demonstrations however have shown there is still an underlying discontentment. Failed crops due to the drought, rising food prices, and high unemployment are still concerns. The Islamist party leader Abdelilah Benkirane won in the recent elections and became the prime minister. Salafists however continue to gain influence, which could ultimately end the Alaouite Dynasty.