This week, the assassination of the American ambassador to Libya and attacks on American embassies in Egypt and Yemen stunned Washington, forcing it to confront the tumultuous aftermath of the Arab Spring uprisings it supported. In Libya, armed Islamist militants killed American Ambassador Christopher Stevens in a brazen attack Tuesday.
Michael Semple, a former deputy to the EU‘s special representative for Afghanistan, and who travelled to Tripoli during the rebellion that overthrew Colonel Muammar al-Gaddafi, said, “It was clear a year ago that the risks were there that a popular uprising could actually lead toward anarchy. The fact that central authority hasn’t been fully restored, that institutions are weak, and that space exists for the type of groups that carried out the attacks… and that essentially nobody is in a position to challenge… that remains a question mark”.
The deadly assault raised questions for Americans, as well, about their country’s involvement in Libya. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said in a statement on Wednesday, “Today, many Americans are asking… indeed, I asked myself… how could this happen? How could this happen in a country we helped liberate, in a city we helped save from destruction? This question reflects just how complicated and, at times, how confounding the world can be”.
Rami George Khouri, director of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut (and a senior fellow at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard University) said that the absence of a sturdy security apparatus in post-Gaddafi Libya makes such violent assaults by well-armed groups hardly surprising. He said, “The security situation echoes that which followed the elimination of Saddam Hussein‘s ruling Baathist régime in Iraq following the American invasion in 2003. When a whole superstructure of government was wiped away by American decree, there was chaos. There was no police, no army. Therefore, you’ve seen what’s been going on in Iraq for the past 10 years”.
Meanwhile, in Egypt, President Mohamed Morsi Isa El-Ayyat waited a day to issue a statement condemning Tuesday’s attack by a violent mob that stormed the American embassy in Cairo in protest of a defamatory YouTube video targeting Islam. Robert Danin, a former US State Department official with extensive experience in the Middle East, said that Egypt’s hard-line ruling Muslim Brotherhood party… with which Morsi is affiliated… was “frighteningly quiet” in the wake of the incident, in which protesters replaced an American flag in the compound with a black Islamist flag. Danin, who’s a senior fellow at the Council of Foreign Affairs, said in an interview, “They called on the USA to issue an apology for a film that’s insulted the Muslim world. They’ve called a nationwide protest on Friday about the film. …The Egyptian government should be focusing on the attack on the embassy, not trying to lead demonstrations against a film, however reprehensible it may be”.
The USA backed Egyptian strongman Hosni Mubarak for decades before his deposition in a revolution that paved the way for the Muslim Brotherhood’s victory in subsequent popular elections. Washington supported the grassroots pursuit of free and fair elections in Egypt, although the events of this week have jolted officials here. President Barack Obama told Telemundo in an interview that aired Wednesday evening that he doesn’t see Egypt as an ally, saying, “I don’t think that we’d consider them an ally, but we don’t consider them an enemy. They’re a new government that’s trying to find its way. They were democratically elected. I think that we’re going to have to see how they respond to this incident”.
On Thursday, protesters continued to demonstrate at the American embassy in Cairo, and hundreds attempted to attack the American embassy compound in Yemen in protest of the incendiary video. Obama spoke with Morsi by telephone Thursday and the White House released a statement saying, “[Obama] underscored the importance of Egypt following through on its commitment to cooperate with the USA in securing American diplomatic facilities and personnel. President Morsi expressed his condolences for the tragic loss of American life in Libya and emphasised that Egypt would honor its obligation to ensure the safety of American personnel”.
Ed Husain, a senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, said that Morsi’s tepid response is a partly a sign of the pressure he and his political allies are feeling from fundamentalist Salafi factions in Egypt, telling reporters in a conference call this week, “They can’t now vacate this area of debate within Egypt and hand this entire debate over to the Salafis to be seen to be the defenders of the Prophet, the defenders of Islam, the antagonists against the West. Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood’s street activists would like to have some of that pie too. By saying the right thing on this occasion, it means taking a huge political hit on the Egyptian streets. I don’t think he’s prepared to do that”.
14 September 2012