The attacks on the US consulate in Benghazi and its embassy in Cairo are raising fears that the US will give up on the Arab Spring and revert to its previous stability-first strategy of accommodation with authoritarian regimes.
Pro-democracy advocates are also expressing fears of an isolationalist backlash motivated by a sense that the Arab Spring is rebounding against US interests and ideas and reinforcing a growing trend of skepticism towards US global engagement.
How’s That Arab Spring Working Out for America?, former vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin wrote on her Facebook page today.
President Barack Obama today vowed that the U.S. would “work with the Libyan government to bring to justice” those who killed Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other U.S. citizens.
While Congressional leaders forcefully condemned the attacks, they stressed that the US should not refrain from supporting democratic forces in the Middle East.
“We are anguished and outraged,” said a joint statement from three leading Senators, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Sen. Joseph Lieberman, an independent from Connecticut.
“Despite this horrific attack, we cannot give in to the temptation to believe that our support for the democratic aspirations of people in Libya, Egypt, and elsewhere in the broader Middle East is naive or mistaken,” said the three senators.
“We cannot resign ourselves to the false belief that the Arab Spring is doomed to be defined not by the desire for democracy and freedom that has inspired millions of people to peaceful action, but by the dark fanaticism of terrorists.”
Chris Stevens, the US envoy to Libya killed in the attack, was one of the “best and brightest,” said Rep. Howard Berman, the top Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
“I am horrified by the murder of the U.S. ambassador to Libya and three other U.S. officials. Absolutely nothing justifies this despicable act,” Berman said. “I am particularly angry that this sickening attack occurred in a country that the U.S. did so much to liberate.”
Giving voice to the widespread exasperation that the attack claimed the life of someone who championed Libya’s transition, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said the attack was the work of a “small and savage group.”
But she seemed to take note that Americans might resent such an attack on U.S. personnel in a North African country they helped to bring out from under long authoritarian rule, Reuters reports.
“I ask myself, how could this happen? How could this happen in a country we helped liberate, in a city we helped save from destruction?” Clinton said. “This question reflects just how complicated and, at times, how confounding the world can be.”
Despite his diplomatic standing, Stevens was known to be an advocate of a grass-roots approach to promoting democracy and US-Libyan ties.
“Relationships between governments are important,” Stevens said, “but relationships between people are the real foundation of mutual understanding.”
“His legacy will surely be as a staunch defender of the Libyan people’s right to self-determination,” writes Michael Weiss, the Research Director of The Henry Jackson Society, a foreign policy think tank. “And while no one has the right to speak for him now, it would only compound the misery of his murder to read in it some grim irony about the comeuppance of America’s pro-democratic foreign policy.”
But the attacks highlight a genuine problem and dilemma for democracy advocates, some analysts suggest: unlike previous democratic transitions in the former Soviet bloc, Asia or Latin America, the Arab Spring risks empowering illiberal, anti-democratic forces hostile to US interests and ideals.
“The big question for the United States, and it’s only been made more urgent by these events, is how to adjust to a world where [moderate Muslim] governments have paved the way for more extremist elements to wield their influence,” says Patrick Clawson, director of research at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “It’s not a good dynamic, but it’s not going away and has to be addressed.”
Many of the beneficiaries of the Arab Spring may accept democratic institutions, but vehemently reject liberal values.
“Attacks on western liberalism played a strong part in this year’s Egyptian presidential election campaign that saw Mohammed Morsi, a leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, come to power,” notes one observer.
As a piece of graffiti scrawled near the American embassy said: “If your freedom of speech has no limits, may you accept our freedom of action.”
This week’s events also demonstrate the frailty of Arab states in the wake of the pro-democracy upsurge, analysts contend.
Libya’s jihadi militants, for example, “do not recognize the sovereignty or the control of the Libyan state,” said Libyan journalist Essam El-Zobeir.
“What has made matters worse is that the state has not been able to deter them,” he said. “[For instance] when Salafis attacked the shrines of local saints recently, the interior minister said that he did not want to enter losing battles and that they had more weapons and equipment than the state.”
While some Islamists have embraced politics, other factions still believed in “the illegitimacy of the Libyan state and the illegitimacy of democracy,” said Omar Ashour, a political analyst with Brookings Doha Center.
Militant Islamist preachers have succeeded in manipulating anti-American sentiment to provoke “a populist reaction,” writes Dr H.A. Hellyer, a Cairo-based specialist on Muslim world – West relations.
“Without radical Salafi endorsement in Cairo and Benghazi, none of this could have happened — and civil society at large has to respond to that trend directly,” says Hellyer, a nonresident fellow at the Brookings Institution. “It is highly disappointing that the Muslim Brotherhood, where President Morsi comes from, has called for more protests, which hardly defuses the situation from needless escalation.”
The symbolism of the attacks is “terrible”, says journalist Ashraf Khalil.
“After all, it was the U.S. and NATO that literally saved Benghazi hours before it would have been overrun by Kadafi’s army,” he wrote. “For those same people (even a tiny contingent of them) to kill a U.S. ambassador less than 18 months later is a disaster.”
Khalil, who wrote the book “Liberation Square: Inside the Egyptian Revolution and the Rebirth of a Nation,” said it is to be expected that many Americans will therefore doubt the wisdom of the entire Arab Spring and Obama’s role in supporting it.
But it would be a myopic mistake to give up on Arab democracy, writes Brookings analyst Shadi Hamid.
“Our commitment to these transitions has at times been tepid — but there are those who would like the United States and Europe to dial down their efforts even more. Such calls must be resisted,” he writes in Foreign Policy:
The easy response, for Americans suffering from Arab Spring fatigue, would be to give up on the Middle East. They could disengage, and treat the Arab world as what it seemed to be yesterday — a place well outside the grasp of normal, reasoned political analysis. But that would be a grave mistake, especially now. It should be obvious that disengaging from the Arab world is what both Salafi extremists — not to mention Arab dictators — want. The more the United States disengages, the more room they will have to grow in influence and power, and the more commonplace events like those of last night will become.
The protesters in Cairo appeared to be a genuinely spontaneous unarmed mob angered by an anti-Islam video said to have been produced in the United States,” the New York Times reports:
By contrast, it appeared the attackers in Benghazi were armed with mortars and rocket-propelled grenades. Intelligence reports are inconclusive at this point, officials said, but indications suggest the possibility that an organized group had either been waiting for an opportunity to exploit like the protests over the video or perhaps even generated the protests as a cover for their attack.
“It would be a tragic mistake to allow the images from Cairo and Benghazi to undermine American support for the changes in the Arab world,” writes George Washington University’s Marc Lynch:
The protesters in Cairo and Benghazi are no more the true face of the Arab uprisings than al Qaeda was the face of Islam after 9/11. We should not allow the actions of a radical fringe to define our views of an entire group. The aspirations for democratic change of many millions of Arab citizens must not be delegitimated by the violent acts of a small group of radicals.
“But the response to the eruption by empowered publics, elected leaders and influential voices across political society — including, especially, Islamists — really does matter,” Lynch argues:
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.
The tragic events in Libya recalled the 2005 Danish cartoons crisis, the FT’s Heba Saleh and Roula Khalaf argue:
At the time, Arab governments had joined in the condemnation of what they saw as an insult to the prophet and, as has often been the case, used the controversy to burnish their Islamic credentials. Western governments, however, could be reassured of a certain red line imposed by the security apparatus in predominantly authoritarian Arab states, so attacks were allowed (in some cases even encouraged) but the damage was also controlled.
The US and other western nations, however, are now dealing with a changing Arab world. In both Libya and Egypt, the state has been severely weakened in the wake of revolutions of the past year and a half and, in the short term at least, it has given radical groups space to manoeuvre.
Analysts say that at a time of fragile security, it is all the more incumbent on mainstream Islamists, particularly groups in power like Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, to rein in radicals and ensure that the state performs its security function, particularly towards foreign missions.
But it seems that Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood is taking an alternative stance.
The attacks followed the circulation on the Internet of an amateur American-made Internet video called “Innocence of Muslims” that ridiculed the Prophet Mohammed. A Brotherhood spokesman urged the US government to prosecute the “madmen” behind the video and demanded a formal apology from Washington.
“Where is Egypt’s new president, Mohammed Morsi? Why has he not gone on Egyptian TV to express outrage?” asks Council on Foreign Relations analyst Elliott Abrams. “Coming from a Muslim Brotherhood leader that would be significant; its absence is even more significant.”
“On the occasion of Mr. Obama’s forthcoming meeting with Morsi at the United Nations, this should be on top of the agenda — and the American complaint and Egyptian apology and pledge to do better should be exchanged, publicly, on camera,” he argues.