“A New Beginning” Under Siege

The destructive potential of this week’s unrest in the Middle East is hard to overstate. The U.S. has already lost a star diplomat and three other Americans, while protests in Cairo continue boiling after four days, and more than a dozen other embassies face demonstrations that could turn violent. The immediate safety of American diplomats and staffers is paramount. But the long-term effects could harm U.S. relations with this part of the world for a generation.

If the situation deteriorates further, and more Americans are killed, it will be increasingly difficult for Washington to support democracy where extremists are empowered and unchecked.  Obama’s 2009 promise of “A New Beginning” with the Muslim world, which he delivered in Cairo, is now under siege–a hostage to extremists attacking embassies and American public opinion.

I hope that this fever breaks and I wished it had broken sooner. It’s too simple to suggest that what we’re seeing is a natural reaction to an inflammatory film, however, the production value of which is being called “sub-pornographic.” These demonstrations are also a product of domestic politics in these countries and a consequence of weak states that remain unable to satisfy even their most basic international obligations (like protecting embassies). As I write this, wire services report that more embassies are being attacked and the American flag is being replaced with the black banner of the prophet. See Foreign Policy‘s liveblog also.

Emile Hokayem of the International Institute for Strategic Studies neatly summed up this week’s mess on Twitter earlier today: “Convergence of values btw West and Arab world over democracy/governance is turning into divergence of values over blasphemy/freedom of exp[ression],” he said. I’d like to start by illustrating the scope and severity of these protests with a stunning map provided by the Atlantic (zoom out to get the full effect). What follows is my required reading list.

The U.S.-Egypt Relationship Needs Therapy, Not a Divorce,” Nathan J. Brown (The New Republic). This article is particularly useful because it focuses on the domestic angle in Egypt and how the new government responded to the challenge at home but failed to address Washington’s anxiety:

Egypt’s leader (and the Brotherhood movement that nurtured him) reacted in a very shrewd and agile manner to events—as if all that mattered was Egyptian public opinion. President Muhammad Morsi himself held his tongue for over a day. The only visible action he took was to direct the Egyptian embassy in Washington to take legal action against those who made the film that sparked the protests. He spoke out against the attack only when his silence had deafened many overseas, and still coupled that statement with an insistence that insulting the prophet of Islam was a red line.

“‘Our Condolences,’ the Muslim Brotherhood Says,” Khairat el-Shater, Deputy President of the Muslim Brotherhood (Letter to the Editor in the New York Times). The Brotherhood’s double-speak and President Muhammad Mursi’s silence betray a stunning lack of empathy or even intuition when it comes to foreign relations. I for one am stunned that Mursi’s response took so long, since he’s been touring the world this month and last, trying to affirm his status as a statesman. I understand his high-wire act: as a conservative politician belonging to a religious party, he must defend his constituents and their Muslim sensibilities—but a simple expression of regret and a stern promise to protect the embassy should have come much, much sooner. That much is common sense.

Desperate Salafi attack in a weak Libya,” Fred Wehrey (Financial Times). I disagree with Wehrey, who suggests that Salafi attacks a sign of weakness. But his reading of the situation is very helpful. Wehrey might be right—Salafis might feel desperate—but given the violent proclivities of such groups, I wouldn’t be surprised to see Salafi militants attack U.S. interests even if they were successful at the polls back in July (they got trounced by moderates, technocrats, and local personalities). Violence is an essential component of their program; I doubt it would be shelved if Libyans gave them a popular mandate.

The Wrath of Libya’s Salafis,” also by Fred Wehrey (Sada). Wehrey is especially good at getting down into the nuts and bolts of Libya’s domestic politics and competing factions—both violent and peaceful. This is a much more involved analysis but absolutely essential for understanding Libya’s problems and it’s trajectory as a state recovering from civil war. I can’t recommend it enough.

The proper U.S. response to Cairo attack,” Robert Kagan (Washington Post). Kagan believes the U.S. has a lot more to lose if it simply abandons emerging democracies in the Middle East. He writes:

Some conservatives are starting to make a glib comparison between the evolution of Egypt today and the Iranian revolution of 1979. This is a faulty analysis. Egypt is not declaring jihad on the West, and Morsi is not Ayatollah Khomeini. We need to avoid an undiscriminating Islamophobia and distinguish between those who want to kill Americans and those who may dislike the West but are primarily interested in rebuilding their societies after decades of dictatorship.

The Muslim Protests: Two Myths Down, Three to Go,” Robert Wright (The Atlantic). Wright offers a short but sweet reality check, which corrects the early narrative surrounding both the controversial film’s history and the inspiration for protests. Wright also points out that the film serves as a pretext for protests but is not the sole trigger for unrest.

Moments of Truth in Libya and Egypt,” Marc Lynch (Abu Aardvark). Lynch’s gut reaction to Wednesday’s news still holds. He argued then that the key indicator for countries like Libya and Egypt would be the popular response to protests—not the controversial film that motivated some to attack the U.S. embassy. Lynch writes:

[The] response to the eruption by empowered publics, elected leaders and influential voices across political society — including, especially, Islamists — really does matter. Authoritarian regimes in the past frequently allowed, or even encouraged, such violent eruptions over these issues. Islamist movements in perennial opposition leaped at the chance to score political points while taking no responsibility for what followed. Today will be a pivotal moment in the urgent debates about how such movements will respond to political power and a stake in the political system. Libya’s leaders thus far look to be passing that test. Egypt’s do not… Morsi and the Brotherhood do not seem to understand, or perhaps they simply do not care, how important their public stance is today in defining their image [both at home and abroad].”

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