FSG Blog
April 1, 2011

Revolution in the Middle East and North Africa: Some Notional Scenarios to Ponder

Patrick Marren and Peter Kennedy

FSG outlines 5 Arab Spring scenarios that attempt to cover the range of diversity and complexity that characterizes the Middle East and North Africa regions.

A wave of revolution is sweeping the Middle East and North Africa. Many people want to know what is going to happen next. Will it be good for the United States or bad? Will it result in peace-loving democracies or America-hating Islamist dictatorships? No one knows. It is important to remember at this moment that not even a single movement in a single country has yet achieved anything approaching what we would call “democracy.” The present is chaotic and fluid, and the future is literally unknowable.

Which is why we really need our imaginations right now. We can’t know for certain what will happen, but we can try to anticipate the broadest possible array of potential outcomes. Here are a few to consider:

5 Arab Spring Scenarios

People Power … and the State Is in Charge. The freedom movement spreads across the region, and when the dust settles a new generation of reform-minded secular leaders is in charge. The bad news is that they are hostile to global capitalism, or at least the kind practiced by the West. Many multinational oil assets are nationalized. The mood is similar to the 1970s, but with social democrats in charge, not despots. Oil prices skyrocket, the region is less predictable, and globalization takes a big hit.

Counter-Revolution.  The freedom movement goes “too far.” Troops are called back out. There are many Tiananmen clashes across the region. A new set of strongmen is in charge; the political atmosphere is worse. Repression is harsh. The United States and allies ponder taking a hard stand, with sanctions and aid cutbacks; they also ponder tacit support for the new dictators. The Fifth Fleet is long gone from Bahrain, but we still have to be forward-deployed to keep our supply lines open.

What Was THAT All About?  Internal discord undermines freedom and reform movements as they confront the hard business of government. Reformers grow tired and disillusioned. The Muslim Brotherhood and similar movements assert their theocratic agenda, and consensus breaks down. Egypt manages to achieve a constitutionally based regime, but it’s tenuous and contentious, and not a model for its neighbors. Some outright civil wars break out, while in other places conflict is low-level but debilitating.

Burning and Looting.  It all goes south as food prices surge but energy prices fall. Armed forces become critical players in the effort to maintain stability and control. It’s “all the West’s fault,” radical mullahs say, and the slums of Cairo and Beirut are far more pernicious breeding grounds for radical activity. Trade is disrupted and oil prices are shockingly high for an extended period.

Deliverance.  Imperfectly and unevenly across the Middle East and North Africa, freedom and democracy take root, with the benefit of relatively strong global economics and open markets. Global capital floods in to take advantage of regional talent (e.g., an Israel-Lebanon-Palestine high-tech corridor), market access and new opportunities. The new governments are modern and secular in orientation. The world breathes a sigh of relief and terrorism recedes as a mortal threat.

Which of these will happen? Well, none of them – and maybe, in different countries to different degrees, all of them. Which is why each of these scenarios deserves deeper scrutiny, to flesh out their internal logics and to understand how we might end up there, and what signposts we might see that could inform us that we are headed toward something somewhat better, or something very, very bad.

Patrick Marren and Peter Kennedy are FSG principals.

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