Published February 11, 2011 | Article Source: FoxNews.com
The question U.S. intelligence officials are now asking themselves is: Who’s next?
Though the White House hailed as “pivotal” Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak’s decision Friday to resign and transfer power, the historic moment raises immediate concerns about stability in the rest of the region.
The Arab world is filled with countries facing conditions just like those that sparked the two successful uprisings — autocratic regimes, disenchanted youth, economic hardship and a lack of personal and political freedoms. Barring Lebanon, Iraq and the Palestinian territories, the 22-member Arab League is a democracy-free zone when it comes to those at the top.
Officials are well aware the unrest could gain momentum across the region. And if it does, the United States wants to make sure it doesn’t destabilize the vital alliances that hold together a tenuous peace.
“The big question is, are there going to be aftershocks?” said Dan Gillerman, former Israeli ambassador to the United Nations. “People all over the Middle East are watching this and (the unrest) … could have waves, which would spread to other Arab countries and other Arab regimes, and this could turn our neighborhood into an even more volatile, more dangerous and unpredictable one.”
Trying to stay ahead of that wave, the CIA has put together a 35-member task force to look at where the uprisings might spread next. The sudden revolt in Egypt took the global community by surprise, and U.S. intelligence officers are looking at several different factors to gauge where and if this movement might spread — they will look at the role of the Internet and social networking, the allegiance of various militaries, the youth and the unmet expectations of those who live in these countries.
According to U.S. officials, all CIA station chiefs are being immediately tasked with examining these factors, including the strength of opposition movements, in their assigned countries.
Gillerman expressed hope that, in the end, the “moderates” beat back the “extremists” in the quest for a more democratic region.
Former CIA officer Jamie Smith noted that every country has its own politics and unique circumstances, and that the popular resistance could take different forms. Egypt is seen as more moderate and tolerant than other countries in the region. Those dynamics, though, could affect not just the nature of the protests but the governments’ response.
Smith noted that Mubarak’s regime, despite longstanding complaints about the abuses of the country’s police force, did not “clamp down” on the protesters with the ferocity shown by Iran’s government when it faced an uprising in 2009.
He said countries like Saudi Arabia and Jordan, among others, should be concerned.
“What we’re probably going to see is a similar thing start to kick off in places where you have a dictatorial government, where you have a monarchy,” Smith said. “This is going to spread like wildfire in sort of a copycat manner, I think. … The people look and say, ‘Well, hey, they were successful in Egypt.’”
“If it’s done right, it will help us a great deal in trying to promote stability in that part of the world,” he said. “If it happens wrong, it could create some serious problems for us and the rest of the world.”
Panetta noted that these situations are unpredictable and there is no way to know whether leaders like Mubarak will make the “right decisions at the right moments.”
Asked to explain the impact on other countries in the region, he and Director of National Intelligence James Clapper said they would discuss that topic in private. They noted that “others in the region” share the same conditions that gave rise to the protests in Tunisia and Egypt.
That reality could explain why the Saudi Arabian regime has been testy with the United States over its handling of the Egyptian unrest.
A senior Obama administration official told Fox News that a conversation Wednesday between Obama and Saudi King Abdullah was unusually tense.
“When we say that we call for democracy, what we call ‘democracy’ the Saudis are liable to see as chaos,” the official said.
By the same token, the official could not identify a Mideast state that has equaled the Saudis in their dissatisfaction with Washington’s handling of the crisis. “The Saudis have always been the most conservative regime in the region,” he said.
Former Pentagon intelligence officer Mike Barrett said that although people should be happy for the protesters in Egypt who have won the most-sought concession out of that country’s regime, U.S. interests in the region are in question.
He said that an uprising in Yemen would pose a big security concern, considering the Al Qaeda contingent that has taken root there, and an uprising in Saudi threatens a major source of oil for the United States.
“At a regional level and a strategic level, U.S. interests are really very much in disarray,” he said.
Fox News’ Catherine Herridge contributed to this report.