So much for the Arab Spring

Fraught with dangerous, unstable local politics. A spark can set the region aflame.
Jamie Dettmer
Protesters flee from tear gas fired by riot police during clashes along the Nile River in Cairo, Sept. 14, 2012. Anti-American protests inspired by a video denigrating the Prophet Muhammad entered a fourth straight day in the Egyptian capital and other demonstrations erupted in much of the Middle East after Friday Prayer ? an occasion often associated with public displays of dissent. (Tara Todras-Whitehill/The New York Times)
So much for the Arab spring
Tara Todras-Whitehill/The New York Times

The Arab Spring once celebrated in Washington and other Western capitals turned nasty last week, souring the hopes of those who believed that overthrowing autocrats and holding elections would see a more stable relationship between the West and the Middle East, as well as a calmer region—one less given to eruptions and recriminations. The rage and violence ripping across the region, which claimed the lives in Benghazi of the U.S. ambassador to Libya, Christopher Stevens, and three other Americans as well as dozens of protesters in Egypt, Tunisia, Sudan and Yemen, underscore how chaotic and unruly the Middle East is becoming, and just how easily jihadists can now foment upheaval. For U.S. policy-makers, it prompts a difficult question during an especially vitriolic race to the White House: what next?

The reaction in Tripoli on the morning that news of Stevens’s death broke was of stunned disbelief; most residents of the Libyan capital avoided the streets, preferring to stay close to the safety of home in such unpredictable times. “So sorry,” was the shamefaced, reflexive response on the streets when Americans—or any Westerners—were encountered. “This isn’t the true face of Libya,” said Ahmed Ahmeri, a 38-year-old father of two who owns a clothing store in the residential district of Gargaresh. “These people are a minority, fanatics.”

Stevens, who was fully integrated into the life of the city, was seen by many Libyans as “one of them.” And the country’s leaders wasted no time in condemning the attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi that killed him. Mohamed Al Magariaf, president of Libya’s national assembly, declared, “In the strongest possible words, in all languages, we condemn, reject and denounce what happened.” The country’s leadership respected Stevens, a strong supporter of the uprisings against Moammar Gadhafi; many counted him as a personal friend. The friendly, laid-back Californian could sometimes be spotted lunching or taking tea at favourite spots deep in the warren of streets that make up Tripoli’s ancient souk with no apparent security detail nearby. A well-known public figure, he felt “like one of the boys because of his role in the rebellion,” said a European ambassador sipping tea in his office overlooking Tripoli harbour. “He stood with us in Benghazi when everyone else was running away,” rebel leader Abdul Rahman El Mansouri explained. “Chris saved us,” Mansouri, a man not given to tears, added, dabbing his eyes.

For President Barack Obama, the widespread anti-American fury set off by an obscure, amateurish, Islamophobic film, Innocence of Muslims, depicting the Prophet Muhammad as a philanderer and fraud, poses one of the biggest foreign-policy crises of his administration, offering the chance for his rival in the U.S. presidential elections, Mitt Romney, to try to cast him as the second coming of Jimmy Carter, whose 1980 re-election was doomed by the Iranian hostage crisis.

Americans, who are in no mood to be asked for more foreign sacrifices, are sore and wondering why the U.S. bothered to back rebels in Libya and elsewhere during the Arab Spring if the rewards are the storming and besieging of U.S. missions, the burning of the American flag and the slaying of a U.S. ambassador—the first American envoy to be killed since the Carter administration. It was a response U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton anticipated when confirming that Stevens had died in the attack on the U.S. consulate in the eastern Libyan city of Benghazi: “How could this happen? How could this happen in a country we helped liberate, in a city we helped save from destruction?” she said in an address in Washington last week. “This question reflects just how complicated and, at times, how confounding the world can be.”

Confounding indeed. There was little understanding on the streets of Cairo when influential jihadist preachers, Islamist talk-show hosts and Salafist parties keen to outmanoeuvre the country’s Muslim Brotherhood government whipped up a frenzy over the tawdry film, prodding protesters to react violently. Four days of violent protests followed in Cairo, with protesters scaling the walls of the U.S. Embassy, shredding the American flag and replacing it with the black flag favoured by al-Qaeda. Copycat riots quickly spread across the region, from Tunisia in the west to the Arab Peninsula state of Yemen, but the most deadly for the Americans came in Libya.

Ordinary Libyans don’t like what they have woken up to either. There was a keen sense of loss among the young progressive activists who cluster around the café and terrace of central Tripoli’s Radisson Blu hotel this week. The progressives—the women tend to dress in hijab-chic, covering their head with a scarf but otherwise wearing tight-fitting clothes—were left wondering, as 20-year-old languages student Ensherah Ben Taboon put it, “What is our future?” She hopes that Libyans will rally in this moment of crisis. Still, they are doing little to try to get it back on track; there were no major demonstrations after Stevens’s death on the side of democracy or even on the side of stability. There were a few small-scale efforts: on Sept. 12, around 200 Libyans gathered to express anger at the assault. And yet even as democracy activists held up placards denouncing violence, Salafi infiltrators entered the square; “Islamic law supports an armed reaction when the Prophet is insulted,” said a bearded 29-year-old, who gave his name as Abu Essa and said he came from Derna. “That’s nonsense,” intervened a democracy activist. “The Quran doesn’t say you should kill innocents.” But such exchanges were isolated. Across the road in a packed outdoor café, the hookah-smoking male patrons who numbered about the same as the activists in the square watched the exchanges.

Despite unsupported claims that the attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi was part of a sophisticated al-Qaeda plot, to Libyan progressives, the culprits are obvious: homegrown Salafists wanting to ensure that Libya remains a religiously conservative country. Progressives complain of the meddling of Saudi Arabia and Qatar, arguing that their preachers—“the unseen foreign hand pushing the Salafis,” according to Annaily al Housh, a 58-year-old doctor—are egging them on. And indeed, Wahhabi preachers based in Medina and funded by the Saudi state are becoming increasingly influential across the Arab Spring countries, with Saudi and Qatari money helping finance local Islamist parties.

But how big a part that played in the attacks remains a question. And there’s plenty of blame to be shared for the ambassador’s death, says Libyan government spokesman Mohamed Al-Akari: Stevens, he argues, shouldn’t have been in Benghazi in the week of the 9/11 anniversary. Only weeks earlier in the eastern Libyan city there had been a near assassination of the British ambassador, and in the early summer, a grenade was lobbed at a car carrying the UN envoy to Libya. Akari says Stevens should have been evacuated rapidly by his U.S. security detail when the anti-American riots started to unfold a few hours earlier in neighbouring Egypt. But he also admits that untrained and nervous Libyan interior ministry guards panicked when protesters started arriving and may have prompted the shootout by firing first.

The details will be lost on many Americans disgusted at the anti-U.S. rage, and on Republican politicians who want to establish in the voters’ minds the image of a weak President who should never have engaged with Islamist elected governments in Egypt and Tunisia in the first place. “It’s a pattern, and the pattern sees the U.S. with reduced influence, reduced respect, reduced capacity to project its interests,” Rich Williamson, a Romney adviser who accused Obama of not providing effective leadership in the Arab world, told Foreign Policy magazine.

Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi’s reluctant and tardy condemnation of the riots didn’t help Obama make the case that the U.S. needs to stay the course. When he did end his silence, he seemed keener to lash out at the movie for insulting the Prophet. A rankled Obama fired back, saying publicly he didn’t “consider [Egypt] an ally,” although, he added, “We don’t consider them an enemy,” either.

And that sums up the dilemma of the Arab Spring for America and the West: the governments that have so far emerged are neither friend nor foe. The democracies that are unfolding are troubled and fragile, fraught with dangerous and unstable local politics. They’re also at the centre of a behind-the-scenes struggle between the West and the Gulf states of Saudi Arabia and Qatar for influence in the region.

Ironically, the Arab Spring country that saw the actual shedding of American blood was the one most disposed to the U.S. and the West—Libya. That goodwill is based partly on the education that an older generation of the Libyan elite received in North America—three of the main contenders for the premiership had been exiles in the U.S. or Canada—and partly on lingering gratitude for the U.S. intervention in last year’s rebellion. Thanks are still frequently expressed to Westerners encountered in the streets of Tripoli and even Benghazi by Libyans.

That affinity with the West runs through the economic vision of Libya’s newly elected Islamist Prime Minister Mustafa Abushagur, a U.S.-trained scientist who spent more than 30 years in exile in America; listening to him laying out his plans for the new Libya is like encountering an American politician. “I want to change Libya by encouraging the private sector, building on the human capital of the young and encouraging their creative, entrepreneurial ideas, and to get rid of government subsidies,” he said. He believes creating the proper environment for the economy to grow will attract foreign investment. “I want to make the country very accessible. I’d like to change the regulatory system that makes it very difficult for people to set up businesses, and we need to reform our banking system, which is still in the Stone Age.”

But Libya won’t be the U.S. anytime soon, if ever—and neither will the other countries that have shed their dictators. And that is part of the problem when it comes to the dismay and disillusionment felt in the aftermath of last week’s rampages. Policy-makers and commentators were naive in viewing the Arab Spring as “just, democratic and liberal uprisings,” says Bill Lawrence, who directs the North Africa Project for the International Crisis Group and served in the U.S. State Department. They were too quick to see the protests through the prism of the Facebook or Twitter postings of young progressive dissidents, many exiled or foreign-educated. The political language of those young people was the West’s—democracy and freedom, women’s rights and free speech—but the Facebook dissidents, he says, were not representative of the uprisings; they were just one element in a big mix of forces that came together to express rage over hopeless economics, corruption and abusive government. And Islamists of all stripes were heavily involved. “This part of the world has been swept up in an Islamic revival,” says Lawrence. Few “appreciate how conservative these countries are in terms of religion.”

The demographics of the region suggest that one cause of turbulence—jobless young men—will long remain. Salafists will have an army of unemployed to recruit from. All the Arab Spring countries share two things: they have very young populations and they are unable to create jobs. For Libya, this is especially critical. Libyans are great consumers and traders, but aside from oil, they produce little. They are going to have to start, if they are to reduce their current 34 per cent unemployment rate. With more than 250,000 armed militia fighters, the need for action is urgent, the country’s new prime minister acknowledges. “They have power and can create a lot of mischief,” says Abushagur. “But there are no jobs for them. The only way we can grow this economy is by getting investment, but then we have to be able to provide security and stability and offer protection for people who want to set up businesses.”

Time is not on his side. Nor is it on the side of policy-makers in the West who believe that engagement must be maintained. As the anti-American riots unfolded, the isolationist wing of the Republican party seized the moment, with Republican Sen. Rand Paul reintroducing an amendment to end America’s $1.5-billion annual aid to Egypt and to cut off funding to Libya. Yet to retreat now would end any chance the West has of shaping or tempering the outcome of the Arab Spring. Says Lawrence: “We have to engage and spend more.” With the presidential election looming, and cash-strapped Americans anxious about their future and more interested in nation-building at home, that message is going to be a hard sell.