U.S. Officials Concerned Over What Follows Arab Spring

Ambassador Chris Stevens
The attacks on U.S. diplomatic compounds in Egypt and Libya, where ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans died, have fueled growing concerns about what will replace long-standing Arab dictatorships that kept order at the expense of freedom. Photographer: Mahmud Turkia/AFP/GettyImages

The attacks on U.S. diplomatic compounds in Egypt and Libya, where Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans died, have fueled growing concerns about what will replace long-standing Arab dictatorships that kept order at the expense of freedom.

The Obama administration supported democratic uprisings, abandoning decades of support for Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in the Arab world’s most populous nation and supporting the rebels who toppled Libyan dictator Muammar Qaddafi. The U.S. helped negotiate the ouster of Yemen’s unpopular pro-American leader, and now is siding with Syrian rebels trying to topple dictator Bashar al-Assad.

“The structures of state influence are not what they used to be, so it’s not just American, but all embassies that are at greater risk,” John Nagl, a research fellow at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland, said in a phone interview yesterday.

The fatal attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi and the demonstration at the American Embassy in Cairo, as well as threats of violent protests elsewhere in the region, “raise troubling questions about the whole experience of the Arab awakening and why security has gotten so far out of control,” said Michele Dunne, director of the Middle East program at the Atlantic Council, a Washington policy research institute.

The attacks prompted the State Department to reduce embassy staffing in Tripoli, the Libyan capital, to emergency levels and reconsider efforts to conduct more proactive diplomacy in the Muslim world, U.S. diplomats involved in the discussions said yesterday.

Blinding Diplomats

The U.S. dilemma, said one official, is exemplified by the events in Benghazi, where the U.S. was preparing to open a new cultural and education center: The man-in-the-street diplomacy that’s needed to counter anti-Americanism and Islamic extremism exposes U.S. diplomats to greater danger. The cautious course, though, leaves U.S. officials cooped up in diplomatic compounds, blind to what’s happening in the streets, both officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

The immediate concern, the officials said, is focused on what may happen on Friday, the Muslim day of prayer, and the concerns extend from Morocco to Brunei, Indonesia and Malaysia. Protesters today attempted to storm the U.S. embassy in Yemen’s capital, and one was reportedly shot dead. In Tunisia, the birthplace of the so-called Arab Spring uprisings, authorities yesterday fired tear gas and rubber bullets as a crowd of several hundred tried to storm the U.S. embassy in the north African nation’s capital.

Contain Anger

“I don’t see the government in Libya and Egypt being able to contain this anger; they won’t be able to swim against the current,” Mustafa Alani, a regional security analyst with the Gulf Research Center, said in a telephone interview from Dubai. “I can see this becoming worse, spreading to other countries like Pakistan and Afghanistan and other Muslim countries.”

One country of great concern, one of the officials said yesterday, is Pakistan, where anti-American sentiments already are high, fueled in part by U.S. drone attacks and the raid that killed al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden. A U.S. diplomatic vehicle was attacked last week in Peshawar, injuring two American officials.

‘Walk Away’

The Obama administration has backed political change in the Arab world. Officials have acknowledged the danger that Western-style democratic reforms may be lost to the hostile rhetoric of Islamic fundamentalists; enduring religious, tribal and ethnic loyalties; and the economic hardships, official corruption and inequality that fuel popular unrest.

“The worst thing the United States could do right now is walk away,” Dunne said in an interview. “These transitions are going to be difficult, and in some cases, like this one, ugly, but I think the United States needs to stay engaged and help countries like Libya get on the right track toward effective democratic governance and security and economic development.”

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, in remarks paying tribute to Stevens and his three colleagues, said events don’t reflect an Arab rejection of American outreach. The attack at the U.S. consulate in the eastern Libyan city of Benghazi should be blamed on a “small and savage group -- not the people or government of Libya,” she said.

Still, the deaths and the pictures of the Cairo embassy besieged by Islamist protesters chanting in support of bin Laden and the Benghazi consulate in flames after an attack by an armed mob highlight the challenges to U.S. interests and diplomacy.

‘Grave Threat’

“Although people in the region may understand these attackers are a small minority, many Americans will miss that nuance, and America’s ability to work” with the new post-authoritarian governments may be imperiled, said Tom Malinowski, Washington director for Human Rights Watch, a New York-based advocacy group.

Malinowski, a former National Security Council official and speechwriter under President Bill Clinton, said while “it’s too soon to tell” what the effect will be on U.S. policy, the biggest question is that of violent extremism. He called that “a disease throughout the region, and a grave, grave threat to everything that brave people in Egypt and Libya and Syria have been struggling to achieve in the last two years.”

With dictators gone, said Richard Murphy, who served as U.S. ambassador to Syria and Saudi Arabia, “the fanatics among them feel it’s their day to make a show.”

Both Libyan and Egyptian leaders decried the anti-American actions, which were prompted at least in part by a film made in the U.S. that protesters said insults the Islamic Prophet Muhammad.

‘Regrettable Event’

“What happened at the American Embassy in Cairo is a regrettable event that is rejected by all Egyptians and that cannot be justified, especially if we take into consideration that those who produced this low film have no relation to the nation or the official stand of the American government,” Egyptian Prime Minister Hisham Qandil said.

Elliot Abrams, a senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, said in a phone interview that the Egyptian failure to safeguard the embassy “should affect U.S.-Egyptian relations. There’s no excuse to their failure to provide protection.”

The Muslim Brotherhood, which won Egypt’s presidency in June, and the more secular leadership in Libya face the challenge of rebuilding shattered economies and appeasing a populace increasingly impatient with the pace of change.

Economic Troubles

In Libya, the public is questioning U.S. ties, even though American-led air power helped insurgents overthrow Qaddafi. In Egypt, anti-Americanism persists even as the military has received more than $1 billion a year in U.S. aid since 1979 in return for maintaining a peace treaty with Israel.

Instability may jeopardize plans by both countries to attract more foreign investment. Increased security at U.S. embassies may push militants to turn their attention to corporate targets in the Middle East and North Africa, Firas Abi Ali, deputy head of forecasting at Exclusive Analysis Ltd., a London-based company that tracks risks to multinational businesses, said in an e-mail.

Egypt is struggling to recover from last year’s revolt that ended Mubarak’s three-decade reign. The country’s budget deficit widened to the highest in at least five years, missing the government’s target, as unrest and labor strikes cut tax revenue and spurred wage increases.

Mursi Invitation

Egypt restarted loan talks with the International Monetary Fund after the election of President Mohamed Mursi in June and secured aid and investment pledges from the U.S., as well as China and Qatar. The U.S. said Sept. 4 that it will proceed with a plan announced last year to provide Egypt with a $1 billion aid package, including debt relief.

President Barack Obama invited Mursi to Washington in December for talks, the state-run Middle East New Agency reported Sept. 8.

During a visit to Brussels today, Mursi condemned the attack on the American consulate in Benghazi and said his government was able to protect foreign embassies on Egyptian soil. In Cairo, protesters today set fire to two police vehicles as authorities tried to keep them away from the U.S. embassy. At least 16 people were injured and 24 arrested, government officials said.

The U.S. government has provided more than $200 million in assistance to Libya since the start of the uprising in 2011, including $89 million in humanitarian assistance and $40 million for weapons abatement, according to a Aug. 9 report by the Congressional Research Service.

Libya Oil

Libya’s oil production has returned to pre-revolution levels of about 1.56 million barrels a day, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. The government also has identified as much as $170 billion in assets that had been under Qaddafi’s control, according to the CRS report.

In Congress, Republican Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky said that continued aid to Libya should be contingent on its cooperation in bringing to justice the people behind the attack on Stevens and the consulate.

U.S. Republican Senators John McCain of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Independent Joe Lieberman of Connecticut said the U.S. shouldn’t “give in to the temptation to believe that our support for the democratic aspirations of people in Libya, Egypt, and elsewhere in the broader Middle East is naive or mistaken.”

Malinowski said the vast majority of Libyans and Egyptians, while “outraged by what they see as attacks on their religion, want nothing to do with killing of American diplomats” and are “profoundly ashamed by what has happened.”

‘Take Control’

That regret is “not enough,” he said. The Libyan government must “take control of their country from the small armed groups who run the country.”

Referring to the outpouring of concern and condemnation by members of Congress, Dunne said it was likely the U.S. would be “more cautious” now in its efforts to engage with the newly democratizing North African nations. Staying out, she said, “would actually be a disaster.”

Anthony Cordesman, an analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, said the U.S. “must not lose sight of our enduring strategic interests.”

“Libya and Egypt are critical nations in the upheavals in the Arab and Islamic world,” he said in a statement. “At the same time, both are years away from stability and forging the new structure of government, social order, and economics necessary to deal with the underlying problems that caused political change in each country.”


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