This week’s fatal attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi and invasion of the U.S. Embassy in Cairo “raise troubling questions about the whole experience of the Arab awakening and why security has gotten so far out of control,” said Michele Dunne, director of the Middle East program at the Atlantic Council.
The current wave of attacks “could alter U.S. attitudes towards the revolutions that toppled secularist authoritarian leaders in Egypt, Libya and Tunisia and brought Islamists to power,” observers suggest.
The anti-American tone of the violence has prompted some observers to suggest that U.S. support for the Arab Spring has opened a Pandora’s Box of illiberalism and extremism.
“This kind of event underlines the… extent to which there are militant groups in most of these Arab Spring countries which are going to be looking for ways to exploit the new political Wild East situation,” said John Landis, director of the Centre for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma.
“And that’s going make presidents think two or three times before they jump on board the liberty bandwagon.”
But the attackers are not representative of the wider population, says Tamara Cofman Wittes, a former high-ranking State Department official who now heads the Brookings Institution’s Saban Center for Middle East Policy.
The attacks were carried out by “extremely conservative Islamic factions that are not happy with the direction of change in their countries. They’re trying to gain the attention of the public in their countries by using America as a political football – and the film made a perfect gift for doing that.”
The death of Chris Stevens, the US envoy to Libya, “signifies the grave challenges facing the United States as well as transitional and sitting governments in the Arab world regarding Islamist extremists,” says Lina Khatib, head of Stanford University’s Program on Arab Reform and Democracy.
For the Obama administration, “politically the bigger issue is Egypt,” said Martin S. Indyk, a former U.S. ambassador to Israel. “On the one hand, you didn’t have Americans getting killed, but this was the fourth time an embassy was assaulted in Cairo with the Egyptian police doing precious little,” Mr. Indyk said. “And where was President Morsi’s condemnation of this?”
Several foreign policy experts said they worried that Mr. Morsi was putting appeasement of his country’s Islamist population ahead of national security. That comes on top of other moves by his government, including restrictions on press freedom and squabbling with Israel over how to crack down on terrorists taking root in the Sinai Peninsula.
While the killing of Mr. Stevens is a “tragedy,” said Robert Malley, Middle East and North Africa program director at the International Crisis Group, “in the longer term, Libya mainly is a problem for Libyans.” What happens in Egypt, by contrast, from “popular attitudes toward the U.S., to its domestic economy, to relations between the Muslim Brotherhood and the army, to relations between Cairo and Jerusalem, to the situation in Sinai, will profoundly affect the region, and so will profoundly affect America’s posture in the region,” he said.
The political openings of the Arab Spring have been especially beneficial to formerly suppressed radical Islamist groups, say observers. According to Eric Trager, an analyst at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, the protest in Egypt was planned by radical Salafists, who exploited the video ridiculing Islam in an act of political opportunism.
“Although the Arab world is witnessing the beginning of a new era carrying much optimism, we must never forget that because democratic gains are a loss for radical groups, they are likely to go to extreme measures to jeopardize democratic transition and reassert their power,” says Stanford’s Khatib.
Violence in Egypt is “taking on a more ideological bent as radical Islamist groups suppressed under the old regime begin to reassert themselves,” said Richard Cochrane, who specializes on the Arab World at IHS analysts in London.
The attacks have exposed the resilience of some of the most toxic elements of the region’s political culture, say observers, including anti-Americanism and popular vulnerability to political opportunists.
“Islamist movements (even if they are not alone in this) have shown that they excel in using an insult (real or perceived) as part of their culture wars,” writes Issandr El Amrani, a visiting fellow at the European Center for Foreign Relations. The independent Cairo-based journalist, who blogs as The Arabist, had hoped that the pro-democracy uprisings would lead to “a qualitative change in the substance of Arab politics.”
“I mean this not just in the sense that undemocratic regimes will be undone, replaced by real politics with real stakes and rotation of power,” he says. “I also mean that I hope the uprisings can short-circuit some old tropes of regional politics, about identity, wounded pride and angry impotence.”
Across the Middle East, “anti-Americanism has become a constant of Arab political discourse, a crutch of sorts,” Michael Young writes in Lebanon’s Daily Star. “That is not to say that America is blameless or the Arabs always wrong; it’s to say that the positivist belief among Americans that they can be loved simply by altering their actions and manners is naively overstated.”
Libya’s Salafists, who performed poorly in the recent elections, are also exploiting the issue. They face a double challenge, says Khatib, based at Stanford’s Center on Democracy, Development and the Rule of Law.
“First, losing the support of Muammar Qaddafi, who, despite having fought them on many levels, still cooperated with and co-opted Islamist militias, and even threatened to unleash them in the wake of the February 17 revolution,” she said. “Second, losing popular support, Salafists have felt marginalized and threatened. Like in Egypt, they have played on anti-American sentiments to appeal to the population.”
Libya is also suffering from the state’s inability to establish basic security and rule of law.
“This shows the problem that we in Libya still face: There is no police force that can control the country. No central authority can control all these different armed, militant groups,” said Mohammed K. Arab, head of political science studies at Tripoli University. “Until we do, we will see continued instability.”
The state’s inability to rein in Islamist and other militias threatens to undermine Libya’s democratic prospects, as anticipated in a report from the National Endowment for Democracy which anticipated the country’s transitional challenges.
“It is political turmoil that provides militant groups with room to operate, and the uncertain handling of parts of the Libyan transition might have come back to haunt us,” said Sean Kane, a political analyst who has worked in Libya for the Center for Humanitarian Dialogue, a Geneva-based nonprofit group that promotes conflict resolution.
But the Salafists are not the sole culprits as Egypt’s more mainstream Muslim Brotherhood is also exploiting the video and subsequent attacks, say observers.
“Why, despite the risks of escalation made obvious by the attack that killed four American diplomats in Benghazi, did the Muslim Brotherhood’s secretary general, Mahmoud Ghozlan, call for new protests after Friday prayers?,” asks Amrani.
“Why is the government condemning the lack of security at the embassy while the president’s political movement, which just spent the last week wooing American investors, calls for more protests? We are still far from the hoped-for improvement in the substance of politics and leadership.”
“I think that the growth of democracy in the Middle East is going to produce a lot more of this, and in some ways we’ve got to tighten our seatbelts, because democracy is going to bring forward the anti-Americanism that is widespread in the Middle East,” said Landis.
Despite evidence that the US public is wary of promoting democracy and of global involvement more generally, experts believe it would be a profound mistake to withdraw support for the Arab world’s democratic transition.
“The worst thing the United States could do right now is walk away,” said Dunne, a board member of the National Endowment for Democracy. “These transitions are going to be difficult, and in some cases, like this one, ugly, but I think the United States needs to stay engaged and help countries like Libya get on the right track toward effective democratic governance and security and economic development.”
A long-term, strategic perspective is essential to help democratize societies that have been subject to decades-long dictatorial rule, analysts contend.
“What you’re seeing in some places, it’s two steps forward and in some other places it’s a couple of steps back,” said Isobel Coleman, (above) a scholar at the Council on Foreign Relations and author of “Paradise Beneath Her Feet: How Women are Transforming the Middle East.”
Some observers attribute the violence to the legacy of authoritarian regimes that tolerated Salafist groups and quietly promoted anti-American sentiments, but insist that withdrawing support for Arab democracy and the region’s current transitions would be a hasty and counterproductive step.
“The Arab Spring is still in motion. It is not over. The Arab Spring has delivered positive results and negative results,” said Ed Husain, senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.
It was “the first time in almost 70 years that we have seen mass protests across the Arab world that more or less want to have better ties with the rest of the world but also dignity in Arab societies, and that can only be a positive thing”.
Voices on Capitol Hill have also cautioned against a U.S withdrawal of support for democratic change which would, says veteran Republican Senator John McCain, only empower al-Qaeda and other radical groups
If the Benghazi attack provokes Washington to end “our support for these people, to leave them on their own without our assistance and guidance, then the bad guys win, then the Islamists and terrorists win”, he said, taking a stance that evidently enjoys bi-partisan support.
The U.S. and other democratic states should remain engaged to help stabilize countries such as Yemen, where radical jihadists pose a threat, said Brian Katulis, an analyst at the liberal Center for American Progress.
“Some may say that this situation in Libya would lead to further hesitations or disengagement from the Syria issue, and I don’t think that’s what will happen. I don’t think it’s the right path,” he added.
Democratic transitions are rarely without upheaval, said Allen Keiswetter, a Middle East Institute scholar.
“It’s going to take time for the Western idea of freedom of speech and religious tolerance to take hold in these countries,” he said.
Libya in particular, has no tradition of democratic governance. “Democratizing countries are among the most violent as they work through their systems,” said Keiswetter, a former deputy assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs.
It is often stated that a democratic transition is a process, not an event, but history suggests that the democratization of the Arab world may be more protracted than in other regions.
The United States can serve its interests only “if it understands that it may well face a decade of diplomacy and aid efforts” to help the countries develop functioning democracies, writes Anthony Cordesman, a national security analyst at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies.
“We in the West need to remember that the ‘European spring’ that began with the French Revolution (or 1848 depending on your choice of historians) triggered upheavals that lasted until at least 1914, and did not end in anything approaching stability,” he wrote.
The current spate of attacks and upsurge in anti-Americanism demonstrate the failure of efforts to improve the U.S. image in the Arab world through public diplomacy and other forms of feel-good outreach, some observers suggest.
“Being loved is not nearly as important as being respected, and in that regard the United States has been riding a roller coaster,” Michael Young writes in Lebanon’s Daily Star:
When each post-Cold War administration has cast fundamental doubt on the Middle Eastern policies of its predecessor, holding it responsible for everything that is haywire in the region, expect Arabs to enjoy those catfights, but also to see their doubts about America reinforced. The reality is that when no clear, overriding strategy exists for America’s approach to the Middle East, administrations function more on the basis of domestic politics, calculations and rivalries, and these tend to be alien to the concerns of the Arab countries they influence.
“The White House and the State Department would do best to save their public diplomacy funds and focus more on a redefining a lasting, bipartisan strategy toward the Middle East that can span antagonistic administrations,” he concludes.