Embassy protests and Middle East unrest in a context

By Stephen Zunes

It seems bizarre that right-wing pundits would be so desperate to use the recent anti-American protests in the Middle East—in most cases numbering only a few hundred people and (except for a peaceful Hezbollah-organized rally in Lebanon) in no cases numbering more than two or three thousand—as somehow indicative of why the United States should oppose greater democracy in the Middle East. Even more strangely, some media pundits are criticizing Arabs as being “ungrateful” for U.S. support of pro-democracy movements when, in reality, the United States initially opposed the popular movements that deposed Western-backed despots in Tunisia, Egypt, and Yemen, and remains a preeminent backer of dictatorships in the region today.

Meanwhile, Mitt Romney falsely accused President Obama of “apologizing” for what the Republican presidential nominee referred to as “American values” and of “sympathizing” with those who attacked diplomatic missions rather than promptly condemning them. (What apparently prompted this misleading attack was a tweet from the U.S. embassy in Cairo prior to the worst attacks reiterating U.S. opposition to “efforts to offend believers of all religions” and “the actions by those who abuse the universal right of free speech to hurt the religious beliefs of others.”)

What incited many of the protests was an outrageously offensive anti-Islamic movie produced by Christian extremists in California, but there is a lot more to the protests than this triggering event.

For years, the Christian right and Islamic right have sought to provoke extremism and hatred as part of an effort to seemingly validate the stereotypes of the other. As Hani Shukrallah remarked about the film in the leading Egyptian newspaper Al-Ahram, “The obvious, outward motive of such attempts is not difficult to discern: to show Muslims as irrational, violent, intolerant and barbaric, all of which are attributes profoundly inscribed into the racist anti-Muslim discourse in the West. And, it’s a very safe bet that there will be among us those who will readily oblige.”

The attacks on two U.S. consulate offices in Benghazi, which killed the U.S. ambassador and three other Americans in Libya, are far more significant, though these appear to have been the work of Ansar al-Sharia, an extremist Islamist militia which took advantage of a protest to launch their armed assault avenging the killing of a Libyan-born al-Qaeda leader by a drone strike in Pakistan. Ironically, the United States allied with these extremists in the armed uprising against the Gaddafi regime last year.

Indeed, last week’s tragedy in Libya should raise questions about the wisdom of backing such armed uprisings, even against a brutal dictator. In Egypt and Yemen, where dictatorships were overthrown largely through mass nonviolent action not supported by Washington, the worst damage protesters at the U.S. embassies could do was to seize parts of the grounds and burn the American flag. In Libya, where the dictator was overthrown in an armed revolution that was supported by Washington, two consulate buildings were destroyed and four Americans were killed in a coordinated assault with automatic weapons, mortars, and rocket-propelled grenades. Historically, autocratic regimes overthrown by armed struggle are far more likely to descend into violence and chaos (and/or a new dictatorship) than authoritarian regimes toppled through largely nonviolent methods.

In a country of barely 6 million people, more than 200,000 Libyans are armed members of militias outside the control of the Libyan government. Even though the recent Libyan elections appear to have been free and fair, and the winners largely consisted of moderates open to a democratic political system, the legacy of the war and the NATO intervention will likely remain a problem for some time to come.

In the rest of the region, where uprisings against dictatorships came largely in the form of unarmed civil insurrections, radical Islamists have been severely weakened, as the popular revolts demonstrated how U.S.-backed regimes could be toppled without embracing terrorism or extremist ideologies. The need to manipulate a hysterical reaction to an obscure, albeit offensive, film is indicative of just how desperate the far-right-wing Islamists have become in asserting their relevance. These extremists were able to stir up crowds in cities in more than a dozen Islamist countries with false claims that the film was a major Hollywood production which, like movies in Egypt and many other countries in the region, must have been subjected to review and approval by government censors before being released to the public.

Ironically, the Prophet Muhammad faced worse defamation in his lifetime but refused to curse his enemies, following the words of the Qur’an to “Repel evil with something that is better, lovelier.”

In short, anti-democratic forces in both the United States and the Arab world want to discredit the pro-democracy struggles in the Middle East: on the one hand, Republicans and others who unconditionally support pro-Western dictatorships, U.S. interventionism, and the Israeli occupation; and, on the other extreme, radical Islamists who want to counter their increasing marginality. Fortunately, the reactions by these chauvinistic forces are more a relic of the past than they are a harbinger of the future.

In thinking about an appropriate U.S. response, it is important not to repeat the mistakes of U.S. policy in recent years. It is extremely unlikely that such vitriolic anti-American protests would have taken place were it not for decades of U.S. support, during both Republican and Democratic administrations, of allied dictatorships and the Israeli occupation, not to mention the invasion and occupation of Iraq and the ongoing military strikes in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Yemen. Indeed, interviews with demonstrators in Yemen and elsewhere not surprisingly found grievances towards the United States that went far beyond the film itself.

It is also noteworthy that the apparent producer of the offending film was a Coptic Christian immigrant who presumably developed his extreme hatred toward Muslims as a reaction to the persecution of his fellow Copts in his native Egypt. Much of that persecution was a direct result of the U.S.-backed Mubarak regime’s attempts to deliberately foment hatred and division between Egyptian Muslims and Christians. Despite the regime’s discrimination and oppression against the Copts—including the infamous 2010 bombing of a Coptic Church in Alexandria by agents from Mubarak’s Interior Ministry, which killed dozens—both Republican and Democratic administrations provided the Mubarak dictatorship with tens of billions of dollars’ worth of military and financial backing.

It is particularly tragic, then, that the victims of last week’s upsurge in violence included Ambassador Christopher Stevens, one of the United States’ most knowledgeable and respected diplomats. The outpouring of grief and remorse from Libyans and others indicates that most Arabs, despite their understandable resentment of U.S. policy, recognize that there can still be good individuals representing the United States abroad.

The best thing that can be done in the memory of Stevens and other victims, then, is to redouble efforts to end U.S. support for Arab dictatorships and Israeli occupation forces. Indeed, the best defense against extremists are political systems that honor people’s demands for freedom and justice.

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