The events that have occurred in Egypt and Libya this week reveal two important things about America’s relationship with North Africa and the Middle East. The first is that there are armed and malicious groups that would like to attack and hurt the United States and its citizens. These groups, though, represent a tiny minority of people. Citizens in Benghazi on Thursday demonstrated this as they held signs denouncing the attack on the U.S. consulate there and the killing of Ambassador Stevens.
Initially, it appeared that the attack in Libya was inspired by the protests in Cairo at the U.S. embassy on September 11 in reaction to a film that disparages Islam and that was made in the United States. As the story broke, though, the attack on the U.S. consulate in Libya turned out to be planned well in advance in part as revenge for the killing of an Al Qaeda leader in June. The Libyan government’s swift response to the attacks, condemning them and mourning the loss of Ambassador Stevens, illustrated clearly that it was not a party to nor a supporter of the violence.
The events in Egypt are more complicated. What is clear is that on September 11, protesters gathered outside of the U.S. embassy in Cairo seemingly in outrage at insults against Islam and the prophet as portrayed in the aforementioned film. The presence of hard-core soccer fans distorts this narrative as does the fact that police and military personnel allowed protesters to approach the embassy in the first place. Usually, the U.S. embassy and its surrounding area are essentially blocked off from significant foot traffic by permanent metal barriers and a significant Egyptian security presence. As Michele Collins Dunne noted on Twitter, that protesters were allowed to advance to the embassy walls indicates that there are “new rules of engagement” about the U.S. embassy.
In contrast to the Libyan government’s reaction, the Morsi government in Egypt was slow to respond to the breach of the U.S. embassy walls instead calling on the U.S. government to pursue all legal avenues against the makers of the film. The Muslim Brotherhood’s guidance council, the organization’s governing body, called for peaceful protests nationwide on Friday to denounce the film. These events come on the heels of the largest-ever American trade delegation’s visit to Egypt. The protests actually broke as the delegation held its closing press conference, urging investors to see Egypt as a safe and promising destination for investment.
This is not ironic, but rather exemplifies the United States’ current relationship with Egypt. It is clear that both sides want to engage, especially on ways to foster economic growth. So far, though, the inevitable attraction for Egypt of American money, and likewise, the importance of Egypt’s strategic location to the U.S have not been enough incentive to chart a clear path forward. The Obama administration would like to turn the page on 30 years of American support for the Mubarak regime, but is rightly reminded at every turn that the Egyptians have not yet moved on from this legacy. The U.S. is disappointed by Morsi’s pandering to his base and by his unwillingness or inability to protect the grounds of the U.S. embassy. The law and order problem that has been brewing is now a major concern, not just for Egyptians but for Egypt’s international partners.
On September 14, the protests in Egypt took a different turn. At the time of writing, sustained clashes throughout the day ended with 53 policeman injured and 142 protesters arrested and reports of one death. As Revolutionary Socialist leader, Hossam Hamalawy quipped on Twitter, fighting with the police has become a new national sport. It appears that Salafists were also out in force on Friday. However, one of the unforeseen consequences of the last year of clashes in Cairo is that it has created a deep field of young men who are eager to strike at the police and state security forces any chance they get. In short, it is erroneous to see these protests as the sole result of a hateful film.
Also on September 14, protests took place at U.S. and foreign embassies around the world, turning violent in North Africa, Sudan, and Yemen. In Tunisia, protesters breached the U.S. embassy walls and appeared to start a fire. An American school was also looted. People have been killed in Yemen, Sudan, and Tunisia as security forces have defended the embassies, and there are surely more deaths to come.
In light of all this, the second lesson is that while sparked and fanned by an insulting video, these attacks are a manifestation of both broad dissatisfaction with U.S. policy in the region and ongoing internal political grievances. There is a great deal of sincere dismay at the insults to Islam contained in the film, but violence has only been a reaction in countries that have seen major political upheaval in the past year and a half (Yemen, Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, and Sudan) or that have long-standing grievances (Palestinians in Jerusalem). This explanation is not in any way meant to justify the violence that has erupted, but rather to poke a hole in the notion that violence is the Muslim reaction to insults to their religion. To be sure, there is a remarkable gap of understanding between American ideas about freedom of speech and broadly agreed upon norms about protecting religion and religious symbols in other parts of the world. As Issander El Amrani points out, it is more than disappointing to see reasonable parties in Egypt and some religious leaders inflame a film like this beyond its originally marginal significance.
As the U.S. responds to these attacks, it will need to recognize their political roots. That is to say, sending soldiers in to fix a political problem will not only be ineffective, but will also demonstrate a continued inability to adapt and respond to the reality of the new Middle East. What can the U.S. do then? In part, the U.S. government is constrained by its base. American fear of terrorism coming out of the Middle East has precedence. Nonetheless, often Americans and the U.S. media fail to see the context that has given birth to anti-Americanism. A national dialogue that frankly addresses the perception widely held in the region that U.S. intervention there has been violent, exclusionary, and extractive is necessary. This is a tall order, however, especially in an election year. If citizens in the U.S. and in the region cannot look to their governments for leadership, it is left to the moderate majority in both places to speak up for inclusive, realistic, and peaceful values to counter the shouting extremists that exist among us.