By Nicole Gaouette
President Barack Obama now confronts a changing Islamic world that’s far more tumultuous than the one he faced when he took office for his first term.
The U.S.-backed revolutions sweeping the Middle East and North Africa are ending decades of authoritarian rule, introducing new leaders in a region crucial to the world economy and turning some countries more toward Islam.
As a result, it will be a challenge for Obama and his second-term team to make headway toward reviving Arab-Israeli peace talks, reducing terrorists’ capabilities and ending the Syrian civil war before it destabilizes neighbors Lebanon and Jordan and strengthens Islamic extremists.
“The U.S. isn’t marginalized completely, but these powers are exercising more influence and less regard for American interests than at any time in the recent past,” Aaron David Miller, a senior fellow at the Wilson Center, a Washington policy group, said in a telephone interview.
The region’s new Islamist regimes and the U.S. “are still in an exploratory phase, each trying to figure out how to approach the other,” said Khalil al-Anani, a political analyst at Durham University in the U.K.
Whether they succeed matters. While U.S oil and natural gas production is rising, the Mideast and North Africa, with their vast oil and natural gas reserves and strategic location, remain vital to U.S. national security and to the global economy. Tensions with Iran drove U.S. crude oil prices to a high for this year of $110.55 a barrel March 1 on the New York Mercantile Exchange. Yesterday, oil for December delivery dropped 50 cents, or 0.6 percent, to settle at $85.57 a barrel on the New York market.
In Egypt, the Suez Canal is a channel for oil shipments from the Persian Gulf to Europe and gives the U.S. Navy a route from its Mediterranean bases to the Persian Gulf. Perhaps even more important, Egypt, the fifth-largest recipient of U.S. aid in the past year at $1.6 billion, has a peace treaty with Israel that the U.S. considers vital to the security of its closest Mideast ally.
Whether nations such as Egypt, as well as Libya, Syria, Iraq, Tunisia and Yemen are turning away from America -- and posing a greater threat to Israel -- was an issue in this year’s U.S. presidential campaign. The debate was electrified by the September 11 attack on the U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi, Libya.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton registered her dismay in her initial reaction to the Benghazi attack that killed the American ambassador to Libya and three other Americans. “How could this happen in a country we helped liberate in a city we helped save from destruction?” she asked in remarks on Sept. 12 “This question reflects just how complicated and at times how confounding the world can be.”
Few places are more confounding today than the region that stretches from Tunisia to the Persian Gulf. As they emerge from centuries of Ottoman, colonial and authoritarian rule, the countries are torn by the conflicting tugs of past and future, stability and freedom, and democracy and religion. Underlying everything are old ethnic, tribal, sectarian and religious rivalries.
Egyptian President Mohamed Mursi, who rose to power from the nation’s once-banned Muslim Brotherhood, opened his remarks to the annual United Nations General Assembly in New York in September by saying: “I salute you in the name of Islam.” He underscored his country’s “involvement in Arab, Islamic and African issues” and its intent “to regain its standing among nations and assume an effective role in global issues.”
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, another Islamist, has signaled that he’d like to restore his nation’s influence in a modern Middle East that European powers carved out of the Ottoman Empire after World War I.
Republicans such as Senator John McCain of Arizona say that U.S. influence in the region has waned in the months since Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali was overthrown in January 2011 and that the Obama administration abandoned allies such as Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh. Obama and other administration officials have said the authoritarians’ days were numbered, and that standing with them would have undermined both America’s values and its interests.
Analysts such as the Soufan Group highlight the changing political environment in the region.
“The confluence of the Arab Spring revolts, the ongoing Syrian crisis, and the widening schism between Iran and its Sunni neighbors -- all occurring while Turkey continues to grow economically and politically -- suggests that future economic and foreign policy initiatives in the Middle East will be determined more by regional quasi-alliances than by Washington, Moscow or Brussels,” the New York-based political intelligence firm said in an Oct. 5 paper.
In Obama’s much-cited June 2009 speech in Cairo, he encouraged the democratic opposition in Egypt and beyond by calling for a “new beginning” between the U.S. and Muslim world based on shared “common principles -– principles of justice and progress; tolerance and the dignity of all human beings.” As a pro-democracy movement gathered strength, the U.S. used its influence with the Egyptian military to pull its support from Mubarak, who was ousted in February 2011.
Yet in Syria, the administration has acted more tentatively against President Bashar al-Assad. In Bahrain, home to the U.S. Navy’s 5th Fleet, American criticism of the government crackdowns against pro-democracy protesters, many of them members of the Shiite Muslim majority seeking greater rights in the Sunni-led nation, has been muted at best.
Obama will have a tougher job exercising leadership in a region where the U.S. no longer can look to autocratic proxies such as Mubarak for help. Rather, newly elected leaders such as Mursi and Yemeni President Abdurabuh Mansur Hadi are paying greater heed to domestic opinion.
That dynamic “becomes awkward for the U.S.,” said Jeffrey Martini, an analyst at the RAND Corp., a policy group based in Santa Monica, California. “There’s a lot of anti-American sentiment, and newly elected regimes in the region feel like they can hide behind that,” he said in a telephone interview. “I think that’s one of the factors in declining U.S. influence.”
As Egypt turns to other potential patrons such as Saudi Arabia or China, which Mursi already has visited twice, the need for the U.S. and its aid becomes less urgent. Egypt now “looks to the U.S. as to how they can grease the wheels vis-a-vis loans” from the International Monetary Fund or help from the Gulf States, Martini said in a telephone interview.
While American influence may be waning as the importance of domestic public opinion grows -- fueled in part by the expanding reach of social-media networks such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube -- it isn’t clear whether Egypt or Turkey can become regional leaders.
Mursi has moved to reassert Egypt’s leadership by convening a group on the violence in Syria that includes Iran, Turkey and Saudi Arabia. He may gain regional and domestic support by backing the Muslim Brotherhood in Syria, a major opposition group in the conflict, said Michele Dunne, director of the Middle East center at the Atlantic Council, a Washington policy group.
Mursi was a member of the Brotherhood in Egypt until he left the party, which had promised not to field a presidential candidate, to run for office. Another motivation for Mursi, Dunne said, is the domestic appeal that an elevated role for Egypt carries.
“This is popular inside of Egypt, as well,” Dunne said of Mursi’s move to lead such a Syria grouping. “One of the grievances against Mubarak was that he let Egypt’s regional influence slip away,” she said.
Dennis Ross, who was a Mideast negotiator under President Bill Clinton, argues that Mursi’s ability to make a case for Egypt’s regional leadership will depend on how well he can meet his country’s “profound economic needs and provide the public a clear path toward progress and economic possibility.”
Mursi may be overreaching, Martini of RAND and others caution. Martini said that unlike Turkey, Saudi Arabia or Iran, Egypt has neither a self-sustaining economy nor real military power or natural resources. Egypt’s GDP is less than half of Saudi Arabia’s and one-third the size of Turkey’s.
Mursi’s attempt to establish Egypt as a regional leader might be his path to greater economic stability, said Jon Alterman, director of the Middle East program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington policy group.
Alterman points to Egypt’s past under President Gamal Abdel Nasser, an Arab nationalist who in the 1905s and 1960s leveraged the country’s position as a regional heavyweight to ensure it had patrons and a degree of economic security.
“I see again an effort to make Egypt a more influential regional player as a way to attract support from a wide range of countries that will be used to help Egypt get out of its very difficult economic straits,” Alterman said in a telephone interview.
Turkey’s Erdogan has positioned his country as a regional leader, in part by embracing the Palestinian cause. At the Oct. 2 congress of his ruling party, Erdogan opened with a fragment of a poem and went on to deliver a speech that one news website, Taraf.com, declared a “Turkish-Islamic Manifesto.”
The former leader of Libya’s National Transitional Council, Mustafa Abdel Jalil, called Erdogan and the Turks “the leaders of the Islamic world,” according to Today’s Zaman, a Turkish news website. Khaled Meshaal, the exiled leader of the Palestinian group Hamas, which rules Gaza and is considered a terrorist group by the U.S. and Israel, told the Turkish leader, “You are a leader in the Muslim world, as well,” the BBC reported Oct. 2.