The waves of unrest plaguing the Middle East and North Africa crested this week with an outcome already visible in two places – Libya and Yemen. Both are on the brink of breaking up into two or three separate states.
Libya's uprising has begun to separate Tripolitania, controlled by Muammar Qaddafi, from rebel-held Cyrenaica.
(See separate articles Libyan issues.)
The Obama administration in Washington and European leaders, especially French President Nicolas Sarkozy, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, are treating with the utmost seriousness Qaddafi's claim that a secessionist Cyrenaica would fall before long under the control of Al Qaeda in the Maghreb – the AQIM.
Wednesday, Feb. 23, the Libyan ruler put before European ambassadors in Tripoli a detailed list of Al Qaeda cells in Cyrenaica, with names and photos of top operatives and the weapons they command. In his view, as soon as Al Qaeda establishes a foothold in the Mediterranean cities on the coast of Cyrenaica, it will be able to target Europe directly for large-scale terrorist operations mounted by sea, like the Mumbai attack in 2008. None of the names that Qaddafi relayed was known to Western counter-terror organizations specializing in Al Qaeda, including US agencies. They are now trying to confirm the credibility of Qaddafi's information.
But DEBKA-Net-Weekly's counterterrorism sources report that European leaders were impressed enough by Qaddafi's file to ask the Obama administration not to go so far as to topple Qaddafi lest Europe be exposed to Al Qaeda attack.
Yemen carved up between three insurgent movements and Al Qaeda
Yemen has meanwhile formed itself into the Southern, Central and Northern regions, each with its own government. Al Qaeda in Arabia is the process of building a fourth Yemeni government:
1. President Abdullah Saleh's central government in Sana hardly functions outside its combat operations.
2. The southern secessionist movement currently controls parts of the port-city of Aden and other key cities in southern Yemen.
3. The Houthi rebels supported by Iran hold sway in the north, the Yemeni-Saudi border, and the largest northern city, Saada. They are preparing to end the ceasefire with Abdullah Saleh and go back to fighting him. This would leave the Yemeni president seriously undermanned for fighting on three fronts. He would have to pull his army back into the capital of Sana to defend his regime.
4. Al Qaeda has seized parts of central and southern Yemen. In the Hadramauth region verging on the Gulf of Aden and the Gulf of Oman, the jihadis or their tribal allies are in full control. For now, Al Qaeda leaders prefer to use ad hoc alliances with the different anti-Saleh factions for building logistical bases and conducting combat operations.
Radical Muslims want a piece of government in Cairo, Tunis and… Islamabad
The two military juntas ruling Tunis and Cairo since the downfall of the Tunisian and Egyptian presidents find themselves up against the overriding challenge of the radical Muslim elements incorporated in the Muslim Brotherhood.
Field Marshal Mohammad Tantawi in Cairo and Gen. Rachid Ammar in Tunis are holding off pressure from the Obama administration to enter into power-sharing deals with the Muslims. They explain that such deals would open government doors not just to moderates but also to ultra-radical elements linked to al Qaeda in the Maghreb or the Egyptian Islamic Jihad. But Washington is not convinced.
A third Muslim state in danger of coming under the sway of Islamic extremists is Pakistan, although it has not been mentioned in the context of the disturbances afflicting the Middle East.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly's military and intelligence sources see all the conditions present for rendering Pakistan prey to a military coup or an Islamic revolution – in addition to which it is the only Muslim power with a nuclear arsenal, estimated to number 120 warheads. World opinion has been too distracted by Middle East turmoil to notice that Pakistan has the potential for two simultaneous upheavals to bubble up simultaneously – a military coup in Islamabad and an Islamic takeover of other regions and cities.
Shaid Javed Burki, a former Pakistani finance minister and vice president of the World Bank, wrote in an analysis headed "A Precarious Pakistan May Soon Face a Mubarak Moment," published February 22: "Pakistan's domestic situation is becoming increasingly precarious. Serious questions are now being raised as to whether the country can survive in its present form. Such questions stem from a growing fear that Islamist groups might once again make a serious bid to capture the levers of power in the country. If that is not possible because of the presence of a large and disciplined military, the Islamists might attempt to carve out some space for themselves in which to establish a separate system of governance more fully aligned with what they view as the principles of Islam."
Three kings' survival depends on Riyadh
A military or Islamist coup could lead Pakistan down the same partition road as Somalia, Libya and Yemen. It would channel the surging unrest from the Middle East and Africa to Asia, a prospect that is already giving Chinese leaders sleepless nights.
Already down that road are the more immediate perils facing the regimes of Bahraini King Shaikh Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa, Kuwaiti Emir Sheikh Sabah Al-Ahmed Al-Jaber Al-Sabah and Jordan's King Abdullah II.
Shiite fundamentalism backed by Iran is the enemy of the two Gulf leaders, while the Jordanian king is cornered on two sides by the Trans-Jordanian Bedouin tribes, once the backbone of the Hashemite and now alienated and turned against it; and the Muslim Brotherhood, which has ties with the Brotherhood in Egypt and the Palestinian Hamas in Gaza.
King Abdullah's ability to keep his balance on the tightrope between these menaces is doubtful.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly's Gulf sources point out that the fate of the kings of Bahrain and Kuwait, and to a large extent also of Jordan's King Abdullah, depend largely on the Saudi royal family's firm resolve to support them, but also on the Saudi throne's own capacity to weather any storms coming its way.
More about that in the next item.