Posted by on March 28, 2014 in Blog

By Marc Sabbagh
Spring Intern, 2014

President Obama’s highly anticipated visit to Saudi Arabia is marked by numerous well-documented rifts that have complicated relations between the two countries. Whether over the support for opposition movements in Syria, Western negotiations with Iran, or the United States’ absence in Egypt, it is widely reported that the Saudis aren’t happy with the Obama administration’s Middle East policies.

Three years after the recent Arab uprisings increased hope for monumental positive change across the region, Saudi Arabia’s current apprehension can also be viewed through the lens of four upcoming elections occurring this year, which (if they happen) have the potential to redefine and further destabilize the Middle East and bring back the pre-2011 regional status quo. By the end of 2014, the Saudis may be faced with mixed results across the region from what AAI President Jim Zogby has called their “go it alone” foreign policy.

Egypt

Saudi Arabia’s recent anger over Qatar’s support for the Muslim Brotherhood was coupled with Wednesday’s news that Egyptian Field Marshal Abdel Fattah el-Sisi will run for Egypt’s presidency. Sisi, the military intelligence chief under former President Hosni Mubarak, led the July 2013 overthrow of Egypt’s President Mohammad Morsi and then became Egypt’s de facto leader.

Sisi’s candidacy is viewed positively by Saudi Arabia, which was disappointed with the Obama administration’s abandonment of Mubarak in 2011 and its later acquiescence over the Muslim Brotherhood’s policies under Morsi. Still, Egypt’s future will be determined by the on-the-ground reaction to Sisi’s campaign, which has so far been mixed. Many Egyptians question the fairness of the upcoming election (scheduled to conclude by July ahead of parliamentary elections later this year) after an electoral law issued in March placed Egypt’s election committee beyond judicial review, which would allow the barring of certain candidates. Others have been attracted to Sisi’s populist rhetoric and believe a return to the status quo, no matter how authoritarian, could revive Egypt’s economy and restore some sense of stability and security - Saudi Arabia's wish. 

The economy and restoring security could prove to be Sisi’s “Achilles heel.” Sisi will need to demonstrate that his leadership can improve economic conditions in Egypt and the precarious security situation. The recent death sentences for over 500 Egyptians, the killing of over a thousand Muslim Brotherhood supporters by security forces and the silencing of several news outlets are incredibly worrisome, even if they are viewed as a reassertion of security and stability. Additionally, financial assistance for arms from and trade agreements with Russia along with the $4 billion in aid given by Saudi Arabia in January may position Sisi well for his presidential run. Despite potential hindrances to his credibility, Egypt’s political climate does not favor potential opposition candidates – the only candidate who announced his decision to run at the moment is Hamdeen Sabbahy, who placed third in the 2012 elections.

Iraq

Just this week, Iraq’s electoral commission resigned to protest conflicting rulings issued by the parliament and the judiciary that barred candidates from seeking election, putting the nationwide parliamentary elections scheduled for April 30 in jeopardy. In what will be the first national elections since the U.S. military withdrawal in 2011, Iraqis will elect the 328 members of the Council of Representatives who then choose the Iraqi President and Prime Minister. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a close ally of Iran, has been accused of both using the contested electoral law to prevent political rivals from running and of interfering with the electoral commission’s responsibilities to pave way for a third term. The ongoing tensions have led to the worst prolonged period of violence in Iraq since 2008. 

In a rare public attack earlier this month, Maliki accused Saudi Arabia and Qatar of “declaring war” on Iraq by supporting “terrorist organizations” within the country and said his leadership was being undermined by “sectarians with ties to foreign agendas.” Many foreign diplomats have pushed for reconciliation efforts between the Shia-led government and the Sunni minority in Iraq, but efforts ahead of the scheduled elections have failed. This leaves Saudi Arabia in a predicament, since Maliki’s reelection could bring Iraq closer to Iran and further enhance the legitimacy of extremist elements that Saudi Arabia now considers terrorist organizations and which Maliki exploits. The election outcome remains uncertain, but some are already saying the results could plunge Iraq into renewed civil war.

Lebanon

After a 10-month political deadlock, Lebanon resolved its cabinet crisis, paving the way for parliamentary and presidential elections scheduled to begin this May. Lebanon now faces a two-month constitutionally mandated period to agree on a candidate to succeed President Michel Sleiman. Because Lebanon’s political process is prone to external interference, important players have reportedly informed a group of active ambassadors in Lebanon "to remain on the sidelines and urge Lebanese people to choose their own fate in the election.”

President Barack Obama has urged Lebanon to hold elections as planned despite the ongoing conflict in Syria and spillover effects. The reasoning may be that if Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad continues to reestablish control in Syria, he could be up for reelection later this year (see below). The pressure is now on to reduce uncertainty in Lebanon’s politics and government before developments next door further complicate Lebanon’s domestic politics. Given Assad’s weakened influence over Lebanese domestic affairs and Hezbollah’s involvement in the Syrian crisis, there may be a window that could prove particularly opportune for Saudi Arabia to push for compromise and provides an incentive for some Lebanese officials to stick to the timeline and achieve consensus on a candidate.

Still, other elements like Hezbollah might seek to destabilize the process until an external balance between Saudi Arabia and Iran/Syria is reestablished. Hezbollah desires maintaining the current status quo, where the government tends to dominate presidential authority. According to Lebanon’s The Daily Star, “this would comfort the party because it would then be able to continue fighting in Syria.”

The outcome of Lebanon’s election will shape the country’s future, which will see a greater influx of Syrian refugees, the ongoing complications of Hezbollah’s fighting in Syria, and the increasing divisions between various communities inside Lebanon over the policy of “disassociation” from the Syrian crisis. If Assad and Hezbollah successfully undermine the upcoming elections, it could revive Syrian influence in Lebanon to its pre-2011 position. A Saudi newspaper has already reported that sources close to the Assad regime believe “carrying out the presidential elections in Lebanon should be linked to the run for presidency in the neighboring country.”

Syria

With the continued reports of the failures of the Geneva II talks, the increasing death toll, and the Assad regime’s recent military victories, it appears the regime has started preparing and mobilizing for presidential elections which could see Assad “reelected” for a third term as president later this year once his term expires in July. The power balance on the ground may be unpredictable and there is a slim chance Western and regional actors could find a new policy in Syria that increases support for Syria’s moderate opposition, but it looks like even U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has conceded the potential for Assad’s regime to stay in power saying recently: “Whether they win, don’t win, they can’t regain legitimacy.”

Typically, Syrians could only vote to support or oppose the parliament’s nomination of Assad for president, but Syria’s constitution now theoretically allows candidates to stand for election against Assad if they can gain support of 35 members of Syria’s pro-Assad parliament, a change made two years ago. Still, any hope for credible opposition is likely to be dashed. Amendments to the electoral process have already been passed by the parliament to bar Assad’s opponents who live in exile from running, and more changes can be expected. After all, the constitution currently mandates a two term limit - Assad would be running for his third. 

Some argue an election is impossible given the status of Syrian refugees and ongoing conflict. Yet there are clear signs that preparations for a vote are underway. A potential sham election in Syria may prove meaningless to Syrians suffering, but it would be a meaningful victory for Assad. A “win” would hinder Saudi Arabia’s attempts to split the Syria-Iran-Hezbollah relationship. Even though Assad will find it very difficult to regain legitimacy in Syria, as he now has to face radical extremist opponents within his borders, if he initiates elections this year, it will be relatively easy to maintain his position as president to begin reverting Syria to a pre-Arab uprisings status quo.  

The Coming Reversion?

So while Saudi Arabia is undeniably worried about Iran, the divisions within the Gulf Cooperation Council, and regional terrorism, the rough reception Obama is expected to receive in Saudi Arabia is also about these four upcoming elections, the divisive and destabilizing effects they could have on the region and its power balance, and the perceived diminishing U.S. influence during this time of uncertainty in the Middle East. Tunisia, also due to hold national elections this year, appears to be comparatively on track in its transition. Elsewhere, the end of 2014 may mark a return to a pre-Arab uprisings status quo.

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