Turmoil in North Africa and the broader Middle East has raised questions about what sparked spontaneous mass uprisings of people who, after years of autocrats, now suddenly demand a voice in their own countries. Months into the unrest, other questions are also emerging, such as whether transitions will progress smoothly and which players might emerge as the political leadership in these new democracies. Meanwhile, another concern lingers in the background: after a decade of fighting a global counterterrorism campaign, do these transitions, and the disarray they bring, mean setbacks in the slow progress against violent extremists? The answers are different across the region. Commentary on these questions too often mixes governments that lack legitimacy and have lower-than-average economies (Yemen, Syria, Egypt, among others) with Gulf monarchies, where traditional leaders benefit from greater legitimacy and, of course, oil wealth.
In North Africa, during the short-term, the renaissance of politics probably is confounding an al-Qa`ida leadership that depended on corrupt presidents-for-life to recruit disaffected youth. Al-Qa`ida second-in-command Ayman al-Zawahiri’s recent statement about Libya reflects this discomfort; while al-Zawahiri supports the revolutionaries, at the same time he exhorts Libyans to attack the very NATO forces who intervened at the request of the same oppositionists. Al-Qa`ida’s struggle to find a clear voice and present a distinct future for these youth is losing ground as a result of the twin prongs of local Islamists’ participation in these revolutions and the likelihood that youth who might have pursued the al-Qa`ida route before are now seeing the prospect that their voice will be heard through elections, not terrorism. Furthermore, the fight at home—coupled with the prospect of participating in elections—probably seems like a far more achievable objective for youth than signing up for a distant jihadist fight in Afghanistan, Iraq, or elsewhere. Recent statements by al-Qa`ida and its affiliates in Yemen and North Africa lauding the revolutionaries almost certainly represent the defense of al-Qa`idists who see no other option: despite their animosity toward the Muslim Brotherhood and their disdain for elections, they have little choice but to support popular uprisings.
These revolutions might defang the message of violent extremism in the short-term. Over the long-term, however, ensuring that these youth do not again live with political leadership that is weak or, worse, kleptocratic may turn out to be the factor in whether al-Qa`ida loses ground in what has been the key recruiting area of North Africa and the Arabian Gulf. The currents of unrest that could revivify a pool of violent extremism in North Africa run deep, starting with the returnees from Afghanistan who helped fuel the war in Algeria in the 1990s and the rise of Egyptian Islamic Jihad through the same decade. The relatively high representation of North Africans who went to fight in Iraq a decade later suggests that these pools can still be tapped.
The Paradox of Increased Political Debate
The euphoria over the toppling of reviled leaders masks the reality that prospective jihadist recruits are part of societies that probably are too optimistic that these democratic and economic transitions will occur quickly. Looking at some of the indicators in key North African countries, the economic malaise that forms the backdrop to the communities that might again become recruiting grounds cannot be cured by any quick political fix. The jumbled view that political revolutions and openness will somehow result in a better economic life could lead to disillusion in a few years if these pools of youth suffer from a hangover effect after revolution, growing convinced that democracy still means they face little prospect of good jobs or vibrant growth; worse, that the parties and leaders who replaced despots are themselves corrupt. Instability in the region, coupled with the disarray among security services that have resulted in increased crime, further adds to the likelihood that these countries will face an uncertain economic future. Economic performance this year will no doubt suffer as a result of the revolutions, and potential investors will look not only for what new governments say about foreign investment, but also for whether more criminality worsens country risk. To be sure, predicting whether disaffected youth will turn violent against domestic parties or instead resuscitate international jihadists is guesswork, but the environment in which violent extremists could recruit would certainly be more attractive for them than it is today.
Increased political debate, seen by many in the West as a long-term stabilizer, might also fuel violence. The blooming of political parties could serve as another factor that opens ethnic and religious fissures that turn violent. Sectarian attacks stemming from confessional politics in some countries might also provide an opening for extremist groups such as al-Qa`ida. Sunni states with relatively open democratic processes—Lebanon and Iraq, for example—elect candidates from parties that define themselves by religion and campaign on sectarianism. Polling data shows that public support is high for a prominent role for religion in politics elsewhere in the region; religion is guaranteed to play a role in North African politics as well.
The West will have a clear opportunity to influence these potential recruiting grounds in North Africa and the Middle East. The United States will face decisions about whether to acknowledge the staying power of Islamist parties by providing the same, or even more, aid to Egypt, along with trade benefits that no doubt will be on the new government’s wish list. With the overly high expectations that revolution will go hand-in-hand with economic improvements, emerging parties will be looking for any opportunity to win investment and expand export markets. Yet domestic politics in the United States will spark questions about whether Egypt’s aid package and more trade are acceptable if the new government has a significant Islamist presence.
Lack of Opportunities Can Fuel Extremism
Economic improvements and job opportunities are critical for limiting extremism. Early in the decade of the expanded fight against al-Qa`ida, many of the violent extremists in the fight were motivated primarily by ideology. Often middle class, they might have spent years absorbing the message that attacks against the “far enemy”—the United States and its allies—were theologically defensible. More recently, some security service experts are growing convinced that today’s cases more involve individuals from poorer economic backgrounds: their motivations might relate to their perception that they will never see success in their societies, and jihadism gives them a framework within which they can justify violence. Khalid Shaykh Muhammad, in other words, is a jihadist most motivated by ideology; youth involved in major plots in Britain, however, are more likely to be angry youth from poorer ethnic neighborhoods who persuade each other, over short periods of time, that the simple jihadism they understand justifies terrorist bombings.
Gaps in GDP per capita between the Gulf states and North Africa, Syria, and Yemen highlight this point: per capita numbers in Bahrain, Oman, and Saudi Arabia far outstrip the figures for North Africa, although Libya is midway between the poorest and the Gulf. Morocco, meanwhile, is near the bottom, once again underscoring the role of a respected king who has some legitimacy in the population and who responded to unrest in his country with careful restraint. Weak economic indicators in monarchies are uncertain indicators of the potential for unrest, but autocratic leadership that has lost legitimacy, such as in Syria, has proven a better indicator of which regimes might be at risk. Yemen, the hotbed of extremism and violence on the Arabian Peninsula, provides a clear example of the economic problem across the region. Almost half the Yemeni population is under the age of 15. Moreover, a recent article in the Yemen Times prior to the recent unrest identifies the future to which those under 15 can look forward: fully 49% of the population above them, aged 15-29, are neither students nor in the workforce. Although the catalyst for protests might have been fueled by economics, tribal rivalries, and a harsh security response, the broader environment was created by President Ali Abdullah Salih.
This economic problem—the likelihood that new leaders who are seen as the embodiment of revolution face greater obstacles to economic growth than their dictatorial predecessors—might drive more extremism in coming years, when young revolutionaries come to realize that democracy is no panacea. Paradoxically, the likely unease in the United States and elsewhere about Islamists in government might undercut the chance to improve the prospects of governments that have taken the wind out of the sails of violent jihadists who might side with al-Qa`ida. Recruitment opportunities for al-Qa`ida and its affiliates are likely to decline in the near-term without the excuses of secular, non-representative regimes as recruiting bait. Yet in a few years, poor economic performance might lead again to questions among youth about whether democracy is offering an attractive option.
This is not to suggest that these conditions are universal across the Arab world. Western media are too quickly equating developments in Yemen and Libya with developments in Bahrain and elsewhere in the Gulf. Whether the parallel movements pressing for change in Gulf shaykhdoms will grow more frustrated is unclear, but the disparities between North Africa and the wealthier countries of the Arabian Peninsula might offer some explanation for why the street protests are less revolutionary than what Egypt, Tunisia, and now Yemen and Libya are experiencing. Bahrain’s obvious demographic differences—its Shi`a majority—along with a leadership that lacks some of the decades-long authority of some of its neighbors helps explain why it has witnessed more significant unrest. Presidents-for-life lack the legitimacy of the Gulf states, and they are rightly critiqued for corruption: they all rank low on ratings from Transparency International, and the Gulf countries typically fare better.
Beyond this clear distinction between legitimacy and the economics of the Gulf monarchies as opposed to the presidents-for-life autocracies is the divide between what protesters are asking for: revolution in autocracies, reform in monarchies. The “Arab spring” is not at all monolithic, with revolutionary demands across the non-monarchies (calls for the ouster of leadership) contrasting with demands for reform elsewhere, including in Bahrain. Radical change and overthrow is seen as the solution in the former, but not in the latter. Again, the language of those pressing for reform reflects the greater legitimacy of governments in the Gulf, who depend more on tribal connections and respect from subjects and less on simple control by the pervasive security forces. Omani Sultan Qaboos might have been in power for 40 years, longer than Qadhafi, Mubarak, Assad, or Salih, but no one would say that the length of his tenure has undermined his legitimacy, even after the protests in Oman turned violent.
If unrest does surge quickly, the greater penetration of the internet—with Twitter and Facebook—across the Gulf might offer organizers a platform to mobilize, but it also offers security services an opportunity to follow mass movements and position police preemptively, particularly when demonstrations are small and scattered. Internet access around the Gulf is high, often higher than in North Africa, and internet usage is dramatically increasing year by year. The internet is viewed as a new engine for unrest; forgotten is the fact that it is also an easily accessible opportunity for security services to watch not only broad mood shifts, but also tactical planning among otherwise disorganized movements that lack clear leadership. The rapidity of the Egyptian uprising might have surprised security forces, and the breadth of the movement, coupled with the sympathies for its participants from within the military, might have canceled out the opportunity to preempt opposition activity.
There are also lessons learned for those countries still watching the revolutionary movements from the outside. Morocco’s king rules in a country that lacks the economic benefits of the Gulf but benefits from his standing. He played this to his advantage in the recent unrest, careful with deploying force and judicious when confronted with requests for reform. His approach might work, offering another explanation for how monarchies might prevail.
Al-Qa`ida’s decline in recent years has been striking, with the group facing devastating strikes against leadership in its Pakistani heartland and declining support among populations that increasingly question its tactics and killings of innocent Muslims. The series of Arab revolutions offer yet another check for the al-Qa`ida ideologues who must be uncomfortable with the potential influence of the Muslim Brotherhood and the likelihood of elections that will be steps toward democratic processes that al-Qa`ida opposes. Yet there are more chapters in this campaign against terrorism, and the future holds potential that the very revolutions that brought democracy might also lead to instability. If economic performance slumps or corruption reigns, al-Qa`ida and other extremists, including political demagogues, might again win favor. Al-Qa`ida has benefited from a long view of history; the West typically does not.
Philip Mudd is Senior Global Adviser, Oxford Analytica. He was the senior intelligence adviser at the Federal Bureau of Investigation until his departure in March 2010, and he was Deputy Director of the Counterterrorist Center at the Central Intelligence Agency until his assignment to the FBI in August 2005.
 To see some of the steps taken by Sultan Qaboos in response to unrest, see Sara Hamdan, “Oman Offers Some Lessons to a Region Embroiled in Protest,” New York Times, April 6, 2011.