resident Barack Obama often labels American democracy as “messy.” It is indeed. But little is messier than life in the aftermath of nation-changing insurrections. The French Revolution produced wholesale slaughter the likes of which Europe associated only with the Middle Ages. While there were no revolutions in Libya and Egypt, longtime authoritarian figures were replaced by a new if uncertain order.
Egypt knocked out a vicious, disciplinarian president, Hosni Mubarak, opening the door to an amorphous cabal of well-organized Islamists and army mavericks, with neither group fully controlling the country’s humors. Libya, with NATO’s help, routed a bogeyman that had nonetheless ensured that country’s rude intactness for more than four decades.
Now, the rough-and-tumble aftermath is showing its true colors, with protests over a video clips from an outrageous (and marginal) anti-Islamic film seized on by populists and extremists to nourish a spasm of regional violence that has already killed a U.S. ambassador. While the potential for such violence existed in antediluvian North Africa, tyrants conveniently intervened to focus all attention on their rage, and not popular discontent. They sought to incarnate anti-Americanism, and in doing so absorbed it. Muammar Qaddafi, until his strategic shift, reveled in America-bashing, standing in for potential domestic violence. Mubarak, a more malleable figure, used his secret police to ensure the Muslim Brotherhood (now in power) remained on the outer fringes of public life. He also shrewdly allowed — if not abetted — a number of anti-American street protests, while limiting their scope. Under his watch, death and destruction wasn’t in the cards, lest they harm Egypt’s cozy Western ties.
American foreign policy, meanwhile, is forever at the mercy of a vintage paradox. It seeks, as part of its essence, to cleanse “bad” regimes (or lubricate the opposition to such regimes when they coalesce). The white knight syndrome, a Manifest Destiny leftover, usually lacks a warning label, as in “be careful what you wish for.” New millennium foreign policy is of the moment and in the moment, in the spirit of instant age spontaneity and its “do something” ethos. Foresight isn’t a requisite. The Tahrir Square protests were often portrayed as the second coming of the Boston Tea Party until a female reporter for an American network was brutalized and raped repeatedly in an alley near the square. Who knew freedom fighters could be so mean?
They are. They’re also self-absorbed.
Libya is a state in name alone, dominated by militias that divvy up the country’s oil wealth and decide which extremist factions to support on the sly. Those factions, in turn, lacking any nation-building impulse, often retreat into traditional Islamic animosities. Since Qaddafi’s ouster, Libya has been sporadically violent, if not mostly lawless, but such realities (which fading tyrant Qaddafi foresaw) tend to come to media attention only after spectacular acts, into which the murder of Ambassador Chris Stevens falls.
Egypt is cautiously walking the line between Brotherhood politics and the need to maintain a polished international image. Prime Minster Mohamed Morsi, a generally reasonable figure, can’t prevent his grass roots from running amok in the way they couldn’t for 30 years under Mubarak. He’s trapped between an obligation to protect the social order, his job, and hindering protest sprees that speak for the Islamism’s hick, blue-collar voice, which has always been ant-American.
Naturally, the United States, sensitive as always to 9/11 hypnosis, wants nothing more than to blame violence on a revived al-Qaeda menace. Al-Qaeda and Osama Bin Laden always offered the U.S. the prospect of a single if loosely contoured entity, a central ingredient in the modern marketing of enemies. In the collective imagination, Anti-American violence in the proximity of 9/11 can have only one viable source.
In fact, the sources are less cohesive. Cartoons parodying the Prophet Muhammad published in 2005 by the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten generated a furious yearlong response that transcended any one group and led to the storming of the Danish embassies in Syria, Lebanon and Iran. Danish products were boycotted. Dozens died in separate incidents. Mubarak’s Egypt suspended the circulation of several American and British newspapers that republished some of the cartoons. The U.S., still reeling from 9/11, mostly saw the matter as a European problem. No American lives were lost.
But the lesson was clear: Any Western representation of the Prophet Mohammed in unflattering terms, particularly if injected into Islam’s blue-collar blob through print or the Internet, risked generating violent fallout, all the more so if Zionism was introduced as an accelerant. Seven years ago it was a mainstream Danish paper; this time a disingenuous but Jewish-funded American film snippets of which went “viral.”
Add recently “freed” but unhealed nations to this incendiary mix, foremost Egypt, Libya and Yemen, and post-dictatorial era is made to show off its early cracks. Ahmad Jibril, Libya’s deputy ambassador to London, who predictably blamed an extremist group for the whole of the unrest, at least obliged realism: “The Libyan security services did not have the ability to counter these people.”
Let new-order messiness begin.