Last week’s latest wave of anti-American Muslim protests from the Middle East to Sydney, Australia was followed by dozens of articles in the international press which has been trying to explain its sources. Ostensibly, the rage emanated from an offensive anti-Islamic film clip that was produced in the U.S. and uploaded to YouTube last June. After the 9/11 attacks, there was a similar effort by commentators to understand what exactly motivated those who hijacked civilian aircraft to fly them into buildings in New York and Washington. It was repeatedly asked what was behind their rage. This time, was the reason for the outbreak of violence the film clip alone, as the Obama administration argued, or were there deeper causes?
This is an important question. One of the leading Arab commentators, Urayb Rantawi, speculated in the Jordanian daily ad-Dustur last week, that the need to come up with an explanation comes from the fact that official Washington “rode the steed of the Arab Spring” and made it into “an American horse.” Yet the very countries that benefited from the Arab Spring, he notes, are those where a new anti-American wave has been unleashed. Rantawi discerns a certain degree of shock in the U.S., that the states of the Arab Spring, have turned violently anti-American. He overexaggerates the reaction within the U.S. to these events in the Arab world, even calling them “another 9/11.” Yet it is reasonable to ask whether some of the features of the Arab Spring have contributed to the intensity of the violent outbursts in recent weeks. Several key factors have been influencing events on the ground:
1. The spread of al-Qaida affiliates in the Arab world: The attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, and the murder of the U.S. Ambassador to Libya Christopher Stephens, was the most violent of the events that occurred in the last week. But it is not connected to some general rage rising in the Arab world, but rather was a pre-planned operation sponsored by al-Qaida. What has happened in the last year is that al-Qaida affiliates have moved more freely than before and established training camps in areas, like Cyrenaica (eastern Libya), where the central government in Libya has only limited control. An identical situation has also been developing in Egyptian Sinai and parts of North Yemen. This is a likely scenario for post-Assad Syria as well. In June, in a rare public appearance, the head of Britain’s MI-5, Jonathan Evans, disclosed that British jihadis were now heading for Libya, Egypt, Yemen, and Syria — the countries of the Arab Spring. He concluded that the Arab world has “once more become a permissive environment for al-Qaida.”
2. The limited ability of the regimes to stop violent protests: A key development that has shaped the way the protests have evolved — and will develop in the future — is the reluctance of the new regimes to firmly put them down. It has been said already that with the Arab Spring, the mobs in Arab capitals have lost their fear of the Arab security services. This allows even the smallest incident to escalate quickly to a major protest that can even threaten the stability of the new regimes.
3. The shared goal of the protestors and the regime to diminish U.S. influence in the Middle East: In Tunisia, Egypt, and Yemen, Islamist regimes with ties to the Muslim Brotherhood have taken power. In Libya, many view its new prime minister as a politician with Muslim Brotherhood ties. The shared goal of these Muslim Brotherhood movements is to reduce U.S. influence in the Middle East, leading eventually to the eviction of America from the region. U.S. strategy has been based on the untested idea that the Muslim Brotherhood will serve as a partner in defeating more extremist movements, like the Salafists. It is true that historically, Muslim Brotherhood regimes have had competitive relations with other Islamist movements, but they have also provided sanctuary to al-Qaida as well, as was the case in Sudan in the 1990s.
The Arab Spring has undoubtedly created new conditions in the Arab world that made the new anti-American wave more likely. What is also clear is that the change of regimes in the Arab world has not improved the prospects of economic prosperity in these countries; indeed, the likelihood of Western investment in states dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood is not very great. If the Arab street assumes that the “horse of the Arab Spring” was an “American horse,” then despite it being totally unfair, Washington will end up sharing the blame for the economic malaise that is likely to afflict these states in the years ahead.