The Roots of Arab Anger

NATOLIN – Eleven years after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, the United States once again finds itself the target of Islamist fundamentalists’ wrath. In the weeks since an armed Islamist mob stormed and burned the US consulate in Benghazi, Libya, killing the ambassador and three other Americans, protests have erupted across the Middle East and North Africa, including further attacks on US – as well as British and German – embassies.

Western governments and international media were quick to attribute the attacks to fury over a US-made film that degrades the prophet Mohammed and disparages Islam. But Libyan President Mohamed Magarief maintains that the video played no role in the Benghazi attack. Indeed, while the video is deplorable, its release – which occurred months ago – cannot account for anger against Western missions across the region.

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In fact, a combination of factors is to blame. The attacks were largely conducted by a small set of young men who are receptive to the kind of radical, simplistic ideologies that have gained traction in the region, owing to dire political and socioeconomic circumstances.

Indeed, eighteen months after the Arab Spring erupted, the euphoria that accompanied the fall of Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, his Egyptian counterpart, Hosni Mubarak, and Libya’s Colonel Muammar el-Qaddafi has faded, with democratic aspirations giving way to bitterness and cynicism. Stuck in transition, protesters and liberalizers are losing hope that they can establish enduring pluralist democracies and generate inclusive economic growth.

Although recent events call into question local security conditions and transitional governments’ commitment to international agreements, Arab leaders welcome the shift in focus from their policy failures. While they responded to some popular demands early last year by subsidizing basic goods, they have since failed to address economic-policy shortcomings or develop and implement sound reform strategies.

As a result, their populations are suffering. Official unemployment in Tunisia in the first quarter of 2012, for example, stood at 18.1%, up from 14% in late 2010. The global financial crisis and record-high food and commodity prices have only exacerbated rising poverty.

By toppling old regimes that, while ruthless and corrupt, were a bulwark against fundamentalist radicalism, the Arab Spring uprisings gave extremists new opportunities to become relevant political players. Now, as Arab leaders – often moderate Islamists themselves – try to shift the blame for their citizens’ disillusionment, their extremist rivals are using it to win support.

Indeed, Islamist movements are gradually filling the void left by ousted authoritarian rulers. In Tunisia, the middle class has come under intense pressure, constitutionally guaranteed gender equality is under threat, and conservative and Salafist forces are trying, often violently, to erode and dismantle the Republic’s secular foundations. In Libya, Islamist militias control entire cities and regions, rendering it impossible for the central government to assert its authority.

In fact, the entire region is unstable. A year after Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’ failed bid to win United Nations recognition of Palestine’s statehood, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has disappeared from the international agenda. Israel’s bellicose rhetoric and Iran’s non-compliance with International Atomic Energy Agency requirements have made a showdown between the two countries seem increasingly likely. And Syria’s increasingly bloody civil war is no longer a domestic issue, given Iran’s direct support for the regime and the growing number of refugees fleeing to surrounding countries.

The international community offers little reassurance. US President Barack Obama’s administration, preoccupied with the upcoming election, continues to look inward. Meanwhile, despite the promise of a revised Neighborhood Policy, the European Union has delivered only verbal condemnation of the violence. And Russia and China continue to turn a blind eye to the region’s deteriorating conditions, exemplified by their firm opposition in the UN Security Council to any international military intervention in Syria.

But this response could prove to be extremely dangerous, given that failed transitions threaten to generate more unrest, radicalization, and a return to authoritarianism. While external powers would probably accept the latter option, the killings in Benghazi might have been only the beginning.

Avoiding bad outcomes will not be easy. The international community must engage with all relevant non-violent regional actors to devise a joint strategy that provides countries with a roadmap for democratic development, economic advancement, and societal modernization. By cooperating with regional players in a spirit of true partnership, foreign powers can provide support without neocolonial connotations.

The roadmap must be rooted in tolerance, freedom, and pluralism. Diluting these values would mean surrendering to fear and hatred – and giving violent extremists exactly what they want.