What We Can Learn from the Attacks on U.S. Embassies

This week's U.S. embassy attacks are the product of intense jockeying for power in an Arab political landscape riven with both new and familiar challenges. Here are five key lessons to take away from an ugly week

  • Share
  • Read Later

Yemeni protesters storm the U.S. embassy in the capital, Sana‘a, on Sept. 13 2012

1. Fear of a Black Flag (or It’s the Salafists, Stupid)

Ordinary Egyptians, Libyans and Yemenis didn’t come across the latest insults to their religion because they spent hours trolling YouTube for Californian political-porn provocations. It required broadcasting of the offending clips by Egypt’s al-Nas network to trigger this week’s anti-U.S. protests in Cairo, Benghazi, Sana‘a and elsewhere. Al-Nas is owned by a Saudi businessman and promotes the extreme Salafist current within Islam, whose political adherents have emerged as a powerful challenger to the more moderate Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt’s de facto ruling party.

The dominant political current to emerge from the Arab rebellion that began in early 2011 has been Islamist, but so diverse is the range of parties broadly grouped under that term that it’s insufficiently precise to explain the political dynamic at work in the embassy demonstrations. The more important signifier, at the embassies in Benghazi, Cairo and Sana‘a, is the ubiquitous black flag bearing an Arabic inscription of Islam’s founding tenet, “There is no God but Allah and Muhammad is his Prophet.” That flag is an icon of political Salafism, having been used by al-Qaeda and also the Taliban, but also by a range of parties and movements across the Arab world that may share Osama bin Laden’s austere brand of Islam but in many cases vehemently reject the terrorism that became his leitmotif. And while Western governments feared the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood to fill the void left by ousted dictators, they — and the Brotherhood itself — were largely caught by surprise by the Salafist surge in newly free Tunisia, Libya and Egypt, and lately as an increasingly prominent feature of the armed uprising challenging President Bashar Assad’s regime in Syria. The Salafists’ political game in those countries, as well as in Gaza, where Hamas faces a similar challenge from Palestinian Salafists, is to challenge the more moderate Muslim Brotherhood mainstream from the religious-conservative and anti-Western right.

(PHOTOS: Protests Rage in Middle East, Sparked by Mysterious Anti-Islamic Film)

The movement has surged, lately, not only because of the newfound freedom to operate in postdictatorship societies but also because a number of Salafist groups are reportedly being supported from the center of Salafist thought, Saudi Arabia — a country whose rulers have long been wary of the Muslim Brotherhood. When the Salafists direct popular outrage at the U.S. embassy — or attack the Red Cross or other Western institutions, as they have been doing in Libya — they’re not just challenging the influence of a Western world still viewed with suspicion in their societies, and promoting a religious outlook that advocates a return to the ways of Islam’s founding generations in the 7th century. They’re also cleverly positioning themselves as guardians of an Islamic “purity” against the pragmatism and real-world compromises of the Egyptian Muslim Brothers or similarly inclined parties in Tunisia and Libya, who need pragmatic working relations with the West in order to deliver the development and economic growth their electorates are expecting.

Having long rejected political participation and berated the Brotherhood for contesting elections, Egypt’s Salafists shocked many after Hosni Mubarak’s fall by creating a political party, al-Nour, and running for parliament. Even more shocking was the fact that they won 25% of the seats by challenging the Brotherhood’s Islamic credentials from the right and agitating for the application of Shari‘a — an issue on which the Brotherhood preferred to soft-foot. Although the Brotherhood still won the dominant share of seats in the legislature, the emergence of the Salafists — who gather votes entirely at the expense of the mainstream Islamist party — may have prompted the Brotherhood to tack to the right at a time when many of its leaders had been hoping to engage with the center, reassuring secular parties and Western powers of its benign intent.

The Salafists may represent a more powerful challenge to the Islamist mainstream than to the West, precisely because they are able to turn a section of the Brotherhood’s political base against that mainstream by proclaiming as “un-Islamic” any compromises or willingness to work with the West, maintain the peace treaty with Israel or create a tolerant environment for the Coptic Christian minority. Demagoguery can work a treat in a population facing mounting social and economic stress, and the embassy protests that channeled genuine popular outrage at the contents of a marginal film reflect a strategy of driving a wedge into the emerging relationship between moderate Islamist parties and a Western world trying to adapt to the changes brought on by Arab democracy.

MORE: The Making of Innocence of Muslims: One Actor’s Story

2. Egypt’s Leaders are Politically Weak and are Navigating a Minefield

Noting the initial silence from Egyptian President Mohamed Morsy and the Muslim Brotherhood after the storming of the U.S. embassy in Cairo, George Washington University Arab-politics specialist Marc Lynch saw political paralysis. “They seem far more concerned at the moment with their domestic political interest in protecting their right flank against Salafi outbidding than with behaving like the governing party of a state,” Lynch wrote, adding:

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. The United States has taken real risks by engaging with the Brotherhood, pushing for democratic change despite their likely victory in fair elections, and insisting that the Egyptian military allow the completion of the transition after Morsi’s victory … Many in Washington will feel that they have been repaid with Morsi’s silence after the breach of the embassy wall which could well have resulted in the same kind of tragedy as in Benghazi. And that will have enduring effects on the nature and extent of American support for Egypt’s transition — how much harder is it going to be to get debt relief through Congress now?

The Brotherhood is all too aware of its political weakness. The extent to which an elected civilian government will be allowed, by the junta of generals that seized power from Mubarak, to exercise political power remains to be tested. Sure, Morsy has completed an impressive overhaul of the top leadership of the military, but he’s not in a position to challenge the core prerogatives it claims for itself. Indeed, maintaining the annual $1.5 billion aid stipend from Washington, and keeping the peace with Israel, would count as core interests of the Egyptian military, and it’s no surprise that the Brotherhood feels pressure to oblige. On the other hand, it has shed more electoral support than it could have imagined to the Salafists and has also come to rely on their support when pushing for Islamist dominance of the constitution-writing process in parliament.

(MORE: After Benghazi Consulate Attack, What’s Next for U.S. Relations with Libya and Egypt?)

Thus the strange balancing act of a President at once trying to woo U.S. investors and the International Monetary Fund and also promising in his inaugural address to free the blind cleric Omar Abdel-Rahman, serving life in a U.S. prison for his role as spiritual mentor of the proto-Qaeda plot to blow up New York City’s World Trade Center in 1993. That was never the sort of promise that was going to endear him to Washington, but it was a popular demand in Egypt.

If that apparent support for a convicted terrorist was overlooked, the fact that Egyptian protesters were able to breach the security of the U.S. embassy in Cairo could not be. And a senior leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, Khairat al-Shater — the movement’s pick for the presidency before his exclusion from the election on a questionable technicality — appeared to be mindful of the dangers raised by Lynch. In a letter to the New York Times published late Thursday, al-Shater expressed condolences to the U.S. for the diplomats killed in Libya and called for an investigation of the police for failing to stop the “illegal” breach of embassy security by the protesters. He called on protesters to express their anger but noted, “Despite our resentment of the continued appearance of productions like the anti-Muslim film that led to the current violence, we do not hold the American government or its citizens responsible for acts of the few that abuse the laws protecting freedom of expression.” In an unmistakable plea for understanding from Washington, he concluded:

Egypt is going through a state of revolutionary fluidity, and public anger needs to be dealt with responsibly and with caution … We hope that the relationships that both Americans and Egyptians worked to build in the past couple of months can sustain the turbulence of this week’s events. Our nations have much to learn from each other as we embark on building the new Egypt.

But the U.S. embassy in Cairo in a remarkable Twitter clash with the Brotherhood, warned that it was also monitoring the group’s Arabic Twitter feed, noticing the discrepancy between the reassuring words like those of al-Shater and the messages in Arabic cheering on the protesters. That discrepancy, however, may be the key political survival strategy of the Brotherhood in the coming months, as it finds itself surrounded by power centers hoping for its failure. Indeed, in the name of dealing “responsibly and with caution” with the anger sparked by Islam-bashing film, the Brotherhood on Friday will stage a peaceful protest rally. It clearly feels the need to reclaim this issue from the Salafists, for narrow political reasons as much as anything else. After all, allowing and even encouraging ritual denunciation of the West and Israel to channel popular outrage was a time-honored strategy even for the Mubarak regime.

But for the Salafists, stirring popular anger at the U.S. as a means of challenging and undermining the Muslim Brotherhood is pretty much a no-lose strategy. After all (see Lesson 4), most Egyptians continue to hold a dim view of the U.S.

PHOTOS: Celebrating the Muslim Brotherhood’s Victory

3. Post-Gaddafi Libya Is, at Best, a State in the Making

The speed with which Libya’s elected leaders raced to condemn the deadly attacks on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi and promised to crack down on those responsible may have appeared to be a stark contrast with the apparent paralysis of their Egyptian counterparts. But Libyan leaders’ determination to respond in a manner appropriate for a country seeking to build relations with Washington may not be matched by capacity. The monopoly of organized force that in most countries defines the nation state was shattered in the war to bring down Gaddafi, leaving a void that has been filled by a patchwork of competing militias.

(MORE: Libya: Killing of U.S. Ambassador Highlights Country’s Post-Gaddafi Struggles)

“Because the country lacks a fully functioning state, effective army or professional police, local actors have stepped in to provide safety, mediate disputes and impose cease-fires,” says William Lawrence of the International Crisis Group (ICG), which on Friday issued a new report on Libya’s security challenges. “But ultimately, these actors cannot take on the state’s role in implementing ceasefires and ensuring conditions of peace. Truces remain fragile, and local conflicts are left frozen or fragile rather than truly resolved.”

The debacle at the Benghazi consulate was a graphic illustration of the fact that militias armed with rocket launchers and mortars are able to operate with relative freedom in the new Libya, with the national army and police force more of a notion than an established reality, as security remains dependent on the sometimes tenuous relationships between different militias. “Until now, central authorities have acted chiefly as bystanders, in effect subcontracting security to largely autonomous armed groups,” says Robert Malley, ICG’s Middle East and North Africa program director. “This is not sustainable. The new government needs to take concrete steps to reform its security forces and establish structures of a functioning state. Anything less will perpetuate what already is in place: local disputes occurring in a fragmented and heavily armed landscape with the ever present risk of escalation.”

PHOTOS: Protesters Scale U.S. Embassy Walls, Tear Down American Flag

4. Despite Obama’s Outreach, the Arab World Dislikes the U.S. More than Ever

Many eyebrows were raised in the Middle East policy community on Thursday when President Obama told Telemundo, referring to Egypt, that “I don’t think that we would consider them an ally, but we don’t consider them an enemy.” While both the Egyptian military and the Muslim Brotherhood government need U.S. support and assistance in order to help stabilize Egypt on a path of economic growth and development, from a domestic political point of view, Morsy may be comfortable with Obama’s characterization of the relationship. For one thing, it’s a mirror image of his own reassertion of nonalignment and strategic independence, breaking with the Mubarak-era habit of playing loyal servant to U.S. regional policies. But it’s also possible that — particularly for a party whose main electoral challenge comes not from liberal democrats but from Salafists — it’s not necessarily helpful to be perceived as an ally of the U.S.

(MORE: Death and the American Ambassador: What Happened in Benghazi?)

Released in June, the annual Pew survey on global attitudes toward the U.S. found, in fact, that 79% of Egyptians hold an unfavorable view of the U.S., while only 19% holding a positive view. And what’s particularly striking is that despite Obama’s promises to revive U.S. standing in the Muslim world from the lows to which it sank under the Bush Administration, Washington’s approval rating in a number of key Muslim countries is slightly lower now than it was in 2008.

Obama, in his speech at Cairo University in June 2009, called for “a new beginning” in the Muslim world’s fraught relationship with the U.S. based on “mutual interest and mutual respect.” He called for changes in the Arab world but also seemed to promise changes in the U.S.’s approach, speaking of promoting democracy and Palestinian freedom, of negotiating progress with Iran and of ending the war in Afghanistan. But on all of those issues, it appears his audience that day has been unimpressed with what he has delivered. The war in Afghanistan drags on; the Administration’s efforts to restart the Israeli-Palestinian peace process and restrain Israel’s settlement activity were stillborn; tensions with Iran are mounting; and the U.S. demonstrated a telling ambivalence at the start of the Arab uprisings when it became clear that it could not support democracy and prop up stalwart allies like Mubarak. The prison at Guantánamo Bay, which Obama promised to shut down, remains open.

Embracing the U.S. as an ally, then, remains a politically risky bet for emerging Arab leaders, while theatrically denouncing it over sleights real and perceived remains a fail-safe option for populist demagogues.

MORE: Never Mind the Democrats’ Jerusalem Kerfuffle, Where’s the Peace Process?

5. Syria: Proceed with Caution

The murder of four U.S. diplomats in Benghazi likely crushed the hope, held by some Syrian rebels, that Washington will lead an international intervention to topple the Assad regime in the way that it helped Libyans to dispatch Gaddafi. That scenario had always been a long shot, of course, with U.S. officials strenuously warning from the beginning of the rebellion that Syria was different and that militarizing the uprising would not bring the cavalry to the rescue.

Over the 18 months of the Syrian uprising, concerns have only grown over the consequences of toppling Assad, his brutality notwithstanding. There’s the growing prospect of a regionwide conflagration, and Syria already seems deep in the throes of a sectarian civil war. The regime retains the loyalty of a hard core of Alawites, while the rebel forces are overwhelmingly Sunni — and Thursday’s report by Britain’s Telegraph that the Christians of Aleppo have formed a militia to fight against the rebels (while the Kurds in the northeast stake out a de facto autonomous statelet) underscore the risks.

(PHOTOS: Syria’s Slow-Motion Civil War)

But there could also be a visceral response to the fact that the same black flag carried by those who attacked the U.S. facilities in Cairo, Benghazi and Sana‘a has been flown by some rebel fighting units in Syria, where a small but unmistakable Salafist element (comprising foreign and local fighters) is trying to claim a growing role in the uprising. The proxy-war strategy adopted by the Gulf states led by Saudi Arabia, on the basis that the Assad regime is a close ally of Iran, has seen a strengthening of some such groups operating in both Lebanon and Syria.

Although their relative strength is hard to assess, Salafist groups, including large numbers of foreign fighters, are sufficiently engaged in the struggle against the Assad regime in Syria to give many in Washington pause. Those who most favor intervention are arguing that the Salafist surge elsewhere simply highlights the need to bring Syria’s conflict to an end by toppling the regime, mindful that extremist influence is more likely to grow in a prolonged war. Skeptics will see in the causes of the events of recent days a vindication of restraint.

MORE: Dissent Among the Alawites: Syria’s Ruling Sect Does Not Speak with One Voice

  1. Previous
  2. 1
  3. 2
  4. 3
  5. 4
  6. 5