Three different dynamics at work in the countries of the “Arab Spring” combined in the tragic explosion of violence in Libya that claimed the lives of the U.S. ambassador and three other American officials, and also in neighboring Egypt.
First, the salafist dimension: It took conscious media interventions and political agitation to turn an obscure piece of Islam-bashing political pornography produced by a convicted fraudster in California into an explosive political issue in the Arab world – dissemination and agitation that was undertaken by media outlets and political formations affiliated with the salafist trend. The salafists, many of them with backing Saudi Arabia, have emerged as the wild-card of Arab democratization, seeking to compete for political authority with the mainstream Islamists of the Muslim Brotherhood trend by challenging the Islamic credentials of mainstream Islamist politicians, and proclaiming themselves the ‘true’ defenders of the faith. Mainstream Islamists governing in Egypt, Tunisia and the secular parties and moderate Islamists seeking to forge a governing consensus in Libya are trying to forge a pragmatic path to realize their vision, engaging with the realities of the global economy and, in order to encourage investment and assistance, seeking to build new bridges with the West. An issue like the hideous California propaganda film provide the tinder to start fires that leave the mainstream Islamists in an uncomfortable position – see the careful line being walked by Egypt’s MB leaders, urging people to protest the video (sharing their anger, and knowing that it needs expression) but also urging them to do so in their own mosques, i.e. to avoid confrontations at the U.S. embassy and such like. The Brotherhood, and parties like it, both Islamist and in the case of Libya, secular, recognize issues like the obnoxious propaganda video as distractions, being used by their political rivals in an effort to weaken their credibility, disrupt efforts to a stable relationship with the West, and strengthen the appeal of the salafist current.
The second element of the explosion of anger is U.S. credibility, which remains very low across the Arab world. President Obama perceived as having failed to deliver on the promises he made in his Cairo outreach speech in 2009 – he doubled down on the war in Afghanistan; he kept open the Guantanamo prison; he failed to restrain Israel’s settlement expansion; his promised diplomacy with Iran has given way to a regime of escalating sanctions and threats of war; the Administration is seen has having responded with ambivalence to the democratic rebellions in the Arab world; and Obama’s massive expansion of drone-strikes is highly unpopular. Without that familiar array of grievances serving as the dynamite, the “detonator” provided by the offending video clip would likely have been relatively harmless. Instead, the salafists are able to seize on such outrages as if they provide an explanation for all the other grievances, i.e. that the reason for the U.S. behaviors that most anger the Muslim world are not simply based on a policy of self-interest and disregard for the concerns and interests of those impacted by their actions – instead, they are explained as part of an overarching antagonism towards Islam itself. That’s the message the salafists are promoting, to undercut pragmatic engagement with the West by their Muslim Brotherhood rivals.
The third element is simply the weakness of the state in Egypt and Libya. Egypt’s state security structures remain in place, but the new distribution of power in Egyptian society complicates their functioning. The Muslim Brotherhood’s President Mohammed Morsi is politically weak, with his authority limited by a military establishment out to preserve and protect its traditional prerogatives – he is surrounded by power centers such as the military, the remnants of the old Mubarak regime, the liberal and secular parties, and the Salafists who are united by their desire to see him fail. And as a result he is vulnerable to political pressure, and needs to court allies and shore up his base. Those impulses, as well as the need for a pragmatic relationship with the US, clearly guided his response to the video protests.
In Libya, the state itself is weak, its security forces shattered by the war to unseat Col. Gaddafi, who had consciously prevented the emergence of strong institutions of state. Instead, security is the responsibility of a patchwork of militias guided by their own agendas and localized interests, perennially challenging one another’s turf. That has d fertile ground in which Salafist militias are able to operate – the very fact that Libyans were able to show up at a protest armed with RPGs and mortars is testament to the perilous security situation that prevails a year after Gaddafi’s ouster.