By Ian Bremmer and David Gordon
The furious protests that have toppled autocrats and roiled politicsacross North Africa and the Middle East for the past two years willenter a new phase in 2013. Arab Spring will give way to Arab Summer,as the region faces a series of increasingly complicated overlappingconflicts that generate plenty of heat. As domestically focused U.S. andEuropean governments resist deeper direct engagement in the region'sturmoil, ructions and rivalries among Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Turkey,competition for influence between Sunni and Shia, a lack of economicprogress, and a resurgence of militant groups will each heightentensions.
Syria will remain at the heart of this trend. The country's civil warhas extended beyond a battle over Bashar al Assad and his government'sright to rule to become a proxy conflict for Shia powers -- Iran andLebanese Hizbullah -- on the one side, and Sunni states -- Turkey, SaudiArabia and Qatar -- on the other. In the process, the country has becomea magnet for jihadists, and the instability created by all thesefights is spilling across borders into Lebanon, Turkey, Jordan, andIraq.
Emerging conflicts elsewhere are less obvious. Egypt, Tunisia, andMorocco now have moderate Islamist governments. In Jordan and Kuwait,Islamist opposition groups threaten the governing dominance of secularadministrations. But while the words and actions of mainstream partieslike Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood and Tunisia's Ennahda make headlinesin the West, the more serious risk comes from far more extremeorganizations, often at the fringes of society, that threaten theability of new leaders to govern and to keep the peace.
Fueling this trend is the reality that, across the region, new leadersare trying to consolidate political power and build popularity at atime when complex, structural economic problems demand solutions thatare sure to make large numbers of people angry. New governments inTunisia, Libya, Egypt, and Yemen will only prove durable if they candeliver tangible economic progress for an increasingly frustrated andimpatient public.
The risk that a Salafist or jihadist group can exploit thesefrustrations to seize power in 2013 is very low, but groups like AlQaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, AlShabab, and smaller affiliates continue to attract support and newfollowers by using resentments against local regimes to foster angerat America and the West.
The biggest immediate worry, however, is the substantial challengesthese groups pose for stability and investor sentiment in countries atthe heart of the region's upheaval. Take Egypt. The Salafist Nourparty won close to 15 percent of votes in 2012 legislative elections, andprotests against U.S. interests orchestrated by minority Salafists inCairo -- like the angry demonstration outside the U.S. Embassy thatfollowed the controversy over a low-budget anti-Muslim American filmlast September -- demonstrate how quickly a small determined mob with anincendiary message can ignite an international media firestorm. That'sbad news for Washington -- but worse news for an Egypt trying to restoreits reputation as a regional powerbroker and tourist destination.
In Lebanon, a Salafist minority, emboldened by the success of theirpeers in Syria, is generating friction within the country's Sunni Arabpolitical mainstream and threatening the stability of the country'seconomy and its banking sector, which depends heavily on moderateSunni management and expatriate investors rolling over Lebanon'sotherwise unsustainable debt.
In Yemen, reconstruction of the country's military will take time,providing Al Qaeda a potential security vacuum to exploit. InDecember, militants killed 17 Yemeni soldiers in a single strike, andthe government has failed to stop multiple sabotage attacks on thecountry's oil pipelines and electricity towers, inflicting hundreds ofmillions of dollars in damage on an already struggling economy.
But Iraq may become 2013's newest Middle East hotspot. In a regionwhere Sunni-Shia tensions are growing, a unified and stable Iraq willbecome less likely, and none of Syria's neighbors is more vulnerableto the threats created inside that country by radical Wahhabi clerics,often with Saudi or Qatari support, who are fueling the emergence ofan increasingly radicalized and militarily experienced Salafistmovement.
At the same time, the Kurdish regional government in Iraq is becomingmore aggressive in promoting its energy development agenda atBaghdad's expense and will try to take political advantage of anyspillover of unrest from Syria. Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Malikihas worked to preserve an increasingly delicate balance in relationswith the United States, Sunni powers, and Iran, but Sunni-led violenceinside the country might well encourage Iraq's Shia-led government toforge closer ties with Tehran, antagonizing the governments of SaudiArabia and Turkey.
The Obama administration wants to focus on domestic challenges and anongoing foreign policy shift toward Asia. But it will be hard not tonotice that the Arab Spring is over. Regional rivalries are heatingup, and Americans and Europeans will only add to the uncertainty bykeeping their distance -- in hopes that they don't get burned.