The Middle East between facing threats, challenges and the hope for stability

Sayed Ghoneim
13 Min Read
Sayed Ghoneim

The following is an abridged and edited transcript of Sayed Ghoniem’s lecture at the NATO defence college on 25 February 2016.


During the previous decade, Arab countries faced a number of big challenges, some of which have evolved into threats challenging governments, institutions, and people.

There was a deterioration in economic, education, and health conditions, but an increase of inflation, unemployment and corruption.

There was an increase in ethnic and sectarian disputes, the gap between ruling elites, and between the people, political and security constraints and an intervention in parliamentary election procedures.

There was foreign intervention in some Arab nations’ affairs to impose their influence and interests, which negatively affected some countries.

These challenges came alongside the weakening of ruling regimes, in addition to unsatisfied peoples that turned to revolutions as a means for change.

The Arab Spring revolutions began in the Middle East, and (secular) Turkey was transparent about its open support of the political Islamic ruling project. Turkey also expanded its efforts of adopting internal economic and social reforms, announcing its Zero Problems policy with neighbouring countries, regional states, and Kurds.

Iran provided open support to the Shi’a communities in the region, increasing its sectarian and political influence in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Yemen, Bahrain, and so on. This alignment came as Iran became certain the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action would be signed, which reduced Iran’s nuclear capabilities to one third and opened the door to lifting all related economic sanctions.

The Arab Spring affected countries throughout the region. In Libya and Tunisia, regimes were overthrown. Two revolutions ousted two regimes in Egypt and an interim government with a roadmap led to a third regime, which continued to face elements of unrest and grappled with internal security issues.

Yemen saw two regimes amid sustained civil disorder, eventually erupting into a full blown civil war. In Oman, Bahrain, Jordan, and Morocco governments made some changes and instituted reforms because of relatively minor protests.

Iraq and Algeria faced widespread protests in major cities, while Saudi Arabia and Mauritania witnessed minor protests that were met with slight changes and reforms. Syria’s widespread revolt transitioned into a civil war, then a proxy war that remains protracted among warring factions, including “Islamic State” (IS).

Political Islam became a realistic endeavour in several countries, as a replacement for stagnant regimes.

Escaping the fervour of the Arab Spring was Israel, which launched two wars on Gaza in 2012 and 2014. Israel also increased security to its Mediterranean gas fields and at the Egyptian border as North Sinai continued to grow restive amid insurgency.

The Arab Spring revolutions did not achieve their goals, proving to be largely unable of meeting the consequent challenges of their results. The downfall of new political Islamic regimes could be a result of mixing religion with policy attempts.

As a result of deteriorating situations in Syria, Yemen, Libya, and Iraq they have come to considered failed states while also affecting the neighbouring fragile countries. This increased the spread of terrorism in the region and around the world.

Coalition forces were deployed in Iraq and Yemen, then in Syria. Iran escalated its involvement in the region by intervening in support of the governments of Iraq and Syria and supporting the Houthis and their supporters in Yemen. Iran was not alone in its intervention scheme as Turkey also intervened in Iraq and Russian intervened in Syria.

Turkey’s Zero Problems policy failed because of its incompatibility with the strategies of the ruling party over the last five years. Therefore, problems increased with neighbouring countries, especially Greece and Cyprus, and regionally with Egypt and Israel. Perhaps one of the main reasons for this was Turkish support for political Islam. Also, a persistent problem with the country’s Kurdish minority increased political ethnic terrorism in Turkey.

The 2015 UK Home Office report said 67 international organisations and groups can be described as terrorist organisations. IS remains the most prevalent international threat and Boko Haram in Nigeria is the largest threat due to it claiming the highest death rate.

Thirty-one terrorist groups are located in Middle East, 17 of which were proscribed since  2014. Several terrorist groups pledged allegiance to IS, declaring their areas as part of the “Islamic State”.

Main security development in the Middle East

Iraq and Syria have witnessed the spread of IS, Al-Nusra Front, Kateeba al-Kawthar, Abdallah Azzam Brigades, including the Ziyad al-Jarrah Battalions as well as the Shi’a Hezbollah in Lebanon. The spread of IS in Iraq has been fought by an international coalition led by the United States without real results. The United States has also trained Sunni forces in Iraq and some elements of the opposition forces in Syria.

Vladimir Putin exploited Bashar Al-Assad’s request of assistance alongside the ineffectiveness of the western military coalition’s strikes, to intervene immediately and strike both IS and Syrian opposition forces. These strikes strengthened Al-Assad, which inflamed Gulf countries.

Turkey began striking Kurdish positions in Syria, while also receiving the first Saudi forces ready to intervene in Syria against IS. The co-chairs of the International Syria Support Group (ISSG), the United States and Russia, have currently agreed on a cessation of hostilities.

The ceasefire in Syria was scheduled to begin 27 February, followed by Russia’s commitment to removing itself from Syria.

In Yemen, there has been an increase in the pace of ongoing battles between the national army backed by popular resistance and coalition forces on one side, and Houthis backed by rebels on the other side. Both seek to gain more control over Yemen. However, the national army and resistance have made progress towards the capital Sana’a, taking control of about 80% of Yemen’s territories.

The rise of purported terrorist groups has been abundant as of late. “Sinai Province” and the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, Ansar al-Sharia and the Oqba Battalion in Tunisia, Soldiers of the Caliphate and the Murabitun in Algeria and Mali, and Ansar al-Sharia and the Shura Council of Islam declared an “Islamic State” in several coastal cities Libya.

The Libyan parliament must accept the new coalition government to begin controlling the country and obtain international approval to arm its national army. Libya should be ready to receive and study official requests on international intervention to fight terrorism inside its borders when needed in coordination with neighbouring countries.

A joint security mechanism must be developed in Libya, starting with supporting unity between Libya’s factions, cutting off the terrorism supply lines, segmenting the terrorist elements, and clearing the territories occupied by terrorist elements. Then, all armed Libyan factions must be disarmed, demobilised and reintegrated.

We may conclude that the top five threats in the Middle East are terrorism, failed states, the proliferation of weapons, refugees, and uncoordinated international and regional interventions in conflict areas.

Ways of strengthening democracy, stability, and rule of law in the Middle East

Foreign Policy and Fund for Peace define a failed sate as: “A political body that has disintegrated to a point where basic conditions and responsibilities of a sovereign government are no longer functioning properly.”

Common characteristics of a failing state include a central government so weak or ineffective that it has little practical control over much of its territory and there is a non-provision of public services. When this happens, widespread corruption and criminality, the intervention of non-state actors, the appearance of refugees, and the involuntary movement of populations, and sharp economic decline can occur.

Failed state indicators include social, economic, political, and security characteristics.

Social characteristics include demographic pressures, refugees and internal displacement, group grievance, and human flight and brain drain. Failed states often result in uneven economic development, severe poverty, and economic decline.

In addition, the loss of state legitimacy, a decline of public services, deteriorating human rights and rule of law, a security apparatus, factionalised elites and external intervention act as the political and security fallout factors associated with a failed state.

I would like to propose several possible reforms to strengthen democracy, stability, and the rule of law in the Middle East. Socially, governments must inculcate humanitarian values ​​into the minds of all segments of society through education and the media.

Clear policies and procedures must be put into place, making education, health, research, and creativity pillars for an advancing civic society. Marginalised minorities must be integrated (ethnic, religious, etc.) and be able to fully and actively participate in society, including them in senior government and security positions.

An independent institute responsible for adopting innovators, giving them opportunities of participation with creativity and arts, must be established. Implementing combined educational, employment, and financial strategies to guarantee equity and equality in job opportunities, remuneration for work and jobs in accordance with credentials and expertise without exception with benefit economic growth.

Administrative corruption, bribery, nepotism, and influence peddling must be eliminated through the application of strict measures of transparency. There should be a separation of powers in a democratic state, with full independence of the parliament.

There should be a strict automation for imposing political transparency and accountability on ruling to ban corruption. It must be ensured that relatives and family members of the president and his government officials are not involved or interfering in their responsibilities, or gaining benefits from exploiting their influence, or inheritance of political or governmental positions and jobs.

Security institutions must be reconstituted to apply the rule of law and serve the citizens of the country, establishing and concentrating on intensive training to social police concerning human rights and dignity.

There should be administrative restructuring of independent regulatory bodies, improving their performance and suitability to ensure that corruptions is disproved of and the rule of law is implemented.

The quotas of women and youth in parliament and senior political positions must be increased.

Justice must be delivered to the highest priority cases of political and administrative corrupted figures, keeping the impartial figures known with impartiality and integrity to support youth empowerment administratively and politically.

People must be encouraged to practice their political rights, as there should be an end to stopping political abduction, violence, and torture.

The armed forces belong to the people as a tool to protect the country’s borders and territories against any threats. It is necessary that political and economic burdens be lifted away from the armed forces so that they may be devoted to combat responsibilities.

And lastly, there must be equality between all state intuitions, and no privilege should be awarded to any institution that would compare it to others.

Sayed Ghoneim is a fellow at the Nasser Higher Military Academy and a defence and security advisor.

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