14 September 2012
On September 11th, a tragic enough day for the U.S., anti-American violence rocked the Middle East, and in the process, U.S. Ambassador to Libya J. Christopher Stevens and three staffers were killed in an assault on a U.S. Consulate in Benghazi.
Almost immediately, pent-up election year political vitriol began to fly in the U.S. A U.S. Ambassador had not been killed on duty since 1979, when Jimmy Carter was President, furthering talking points comparing Obama’s foreign policy to Carter’s legacy of failure. GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney launched an attack on Obama for being “soft” on foreign policy, and was in turn roundly criticized by both parties for his politicizing statements so soon after the tragedy.
In the mess of all the political sniping, some very real—and dangerous—facts about incidents were overlooked.
The Libya attacks have left two nations grieving. Not only were Libyan staff members killed when the consulate was attacked and burned down, but Ambassador Stevens was a highly popular figure, a “friend to Libya” as it is said, who died while trying to help consulate staff escape the attack rather than barricading himself in the more secure Embassy.
At first, most news outlets blamed these attacks on anger over an offensive anti-Muslim film made in the United States, but a close look at the facts has brought about deeper questioning. How were a few angry, spontaneous protesters able to so easily overcome security at a U.S. Consulate? If the Ambassador’s body was being triumphantly dragged through the streets, as some right-wing blogs claimed, how did it end up at a hospital where a doctor worked for 90 minutes to revive him?
In the few days since the attack, the dialogue has shifted. Isobel Coleman, Senior Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, is among the experts who believe this attack was not a spontaneous one. Rather, she said in a media conference call on September 12th, it is much more likely that this was a well-organized attack, intended weeks or months in advance to fall on September 11th; the anger over the anti-Muslim video was just an opportunistic cover.
Since the fall of Gaddafi, Libya has been somewhat of a “Wild West.” The new Libyan government has been unsuccessful in gaining complete control over the nation, let alone in tracking the stockpiles of weapons that went missing after Gaddafi’s fall, resulting in an environment ripe for an al-Qaeda brand movement. It is very likely, said Coleman, the group Ansar al Shariah, which has strangely neither confirmed nor denied its involvement in the attacks, is using the attacks to gain a foothold in a still unstable Libya.
What does this mean for Libya? Judging from the streets filled with civilians carrying signs apologizing for the attacks, as well as the head of the national assembly Mohammed Magarief’s live statements on Al Jazeera vowing to arrest those responsible, Libyans fear losing the United States as an ally at a moment when it has become clear how vulnerable to violence the nation still is. Should a small group of insurgents, whether they claim allegiance to al-Qaeda or Gaddafi, gain control of a substantial weapons cache, the country could once again descend into civil war. Perhaps more concerning, given that Libyan arms have appeared in places from Mali to Egypt and Tunisia, would be the devastating destabilizing effect the spread of violence would have on the heartland of the Arab Spring.
The protests in Egypt present, in many ways, a far stickier diplomatic situation than the Libya attacks.
The protest began peacefully, after Salafist talk show host Sheikh Khalad Abdalla played clips on his show of the now-infamous Innocence of Muslims. As the crowds in Cairo grew larger and angrier, they overwhelmed local security forces and began climbing the wall of the U.S. Embassy. Interestingly, the Marine snipers along the roof of the Embassy did not fire on the protesters, possibly in a signal that they interpreted the crows as merely venting anger without a true intent to harm. No one was injured in the Cairo Embassy protests.
Newly-elected President Morsi eventually released a statement on the protests, but it took several hours for him to do so, raising questions over his true feelings toward the U.S.-Egypt relationship. Ed Husain, CFR Senior Fellow for Middle Eastern Studies, points to the nature of Morsi’s election as reason for the delay. Morsi, by necessity, must run a consensus government, and he has surrounded himself with advisors from many competing groups, while at the same time, he is not a strong enough leader to manage all the competing voices.
Perhaps the U.S.’s true diplomacy mistake in Egypt, and the broader Middle East, is the failure to effectively communicate which values of free expression are necessary for a functioning democracy. Much of the Middle East misunderstands how the First Amendment functions; as Mr. Husain explained, protesters have for generations been living under dictatorial regimes, which required government approval for any video production. When President Morsi responded to the protests by calling on President Obama to prosecute the video producers to the full extent of the law, it may not be too far off to guess that many Egyptians assume the U.S. government had a role in its production, fueling the already widespread belief that U.S. military forces are in the Middle East to fight a war against Islam.
Egypt is in a precarious place. Sectarian violence and a failure to fully implement democratic values could derail Egypt’s chapter in the Arab Spring.
The United States
These most recent incidents can be traced back to a disturbing phenomenon: growing religious extremism. This time, the confluence between vocal and well-funded anti-Islam sentiment among Christian fundamentalists in the United States and pockets of vocal Islamic fundamentalists in the Middle East collided, forming a deadly cocktail that will likely result in continued protests for the next week.
Rising right-wing extremism in the United States and Europe has been a recognized trend for the past two years, and has produced terrible results, including the massacre of 77 people in Norway by self-proclaimed Christian crusader Anders Behring Brevik. Innocence of Muslims appears to have emerged from a similar mindset: Steve Klein, one of the script consultants for the film, has been an active participant in some of the leading anti-Islam protests in the United States, and two of the groups he is affiliated with have been labeled hate groups by the Southern Poverty Law Center. Florida pastor Terry Jones of Quran-burning fame was an enthusiastic promoter of the film; originally, many media outlets believed he was behind the film’s creation. The producer of the film, Nakoula Basseley Nakoula—operating under the pseudonym Sam Bacile—is an Egyptian Copt associated with fringe groups denounced by Coptic leaders; in 2009, he was convicted of bank fraud, and by posting the video on YouTube, he may be in violation of parole terms stating he must stay off the internet. It is unclear why Nakoula originally called himself an “Israeli Jew” and stated that the film was produced with money from “100 Jewish donors,” although an intention to incite violence can be inferred.
After a summer filled with stories of mosque attacks, shootings, and harassment of innocent Muslim families across the United States, it is clear that American Islamophobia has reached a new and dangerous high. While the creators of the video may not have broken any laws explicitly (although they will rightfully have to deal with a lawsuit for misleading the cast on the true nature of the film), it is clear that their actions, and the actions and words of their compatriots, are creating an increasingly dangerous environment for Americans in the world. However, what exactly the U.S. government can do to address this trend is unclear.
As the protests spread across the Middle East, it is clear that the region remains destabilized in the wake of the Arab Spring, and the continuing instability will only grow more dangerous the longer it drags on. It takes a long time to establish democratic norms, and the United States should be careful to see that it does not unintentionally derail efforts to implement functioning democratic values.