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Anti-US attacks in Libya, Egypt, Yemen: Put security first

Violent attacks on US diplomatic posts in Libya, Egypt, Yemen, and elsewhere this week underscore a lesson taught repeatedly over the past decade – namely, that security is necessary to launch fledgling democracies emerging from autocratic states.

By Kurt Shillinger / September 13, 2012

A protester runs from tear gas released by riot police during clashes along a road which leads to the US embassy in Cairo, Egypt, Sept. 13. Op-ed contributor Kurt Shillinger writes: 'From Sierra Leone in Africa to Iraq, examples show how important law and order are to a country’s political, economic, and social progress.'

Amr Abdallah Dalsh/Reuters

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Violent attacks on US diplomatic posts in Libya, Egypt, Yemen, and elsewhere this week underscore a lesson taught repeatedly over the past decade – namely, that security is necessary to launch fledgling democracies emerging from autocratic states.

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From Sierra Leone in Africa to Iraq, examples show how important law and order are to a country’s political, economic, and social progress. Security must be a prerequisite to development, at least in the immediate term, even if development is essential to stability in the long term.

As protests spread against an anti-Muslim film, reportedly made in California, what options do these countries’ leaders and their international counterparts have to establish stability? The stakes are high in a region at its most pivotal and delicate moment in nearly a century – and so are the challenges.

Libya and Egypt, for instance, have newly elected governments with limited influence and control over their military and police forces. Both face factionalized and fragmented societies emerging from decades of injustice and state violence. Both must forge new relationships with the West amid a constant threat of Islamic extremism.

Libya achieved democracy through civil war, Egypt through popular protest. Libya is awash in weaponry, Egypt is historically a seedbed of violent Islamism.

In Libya, there are strong indications that jihadists possibly linked to al Qaeda and possessing advanced weaponry were responsible for the deaths of US Amb. Chris Stevens and three of his colleagues. It is unclear whether extremists planned the attack in advance or simply took advantage of a mob scene. The transitional government, made up of pro-Western moderates, immediately apologized to the United States for the incident.

In Egypt, protesters who scaled the walls of the embassy in Cairo burned the American flag and hoisted a black Islamist banner in its place. As a leader of the formerly banned Muslim Brotherhood, President Mohamed Morsi faces the delicate task of balancing the ideological leanings of his base with the imperatives of serving all Egyptians. He condemned the attacks as “unlawful acts,” but only after his government encouraged protests to continue Friday at the mosques.

In both countries, the security forces tasked with protecting foreign diplomats not only failed in their duties, but may have been complicit in the violence.

The attacks against the US embassy in Cairo and consulate in Benghazi were not isolated violent events in either country. A British diplomat narrowly escaped a rocket attack while traveling in Benghazi in June. Gun battles erupt regularly across factional lines across Libya. Salafist Muslim extremists have destroyed archeologically important Sufi religious sites in Libya, and disrupted arts and cultural events in Tunisia, another nascent democracy. Along the Egypt-Israel border in the Sinai, Islamist gunmen killed 15 Egyptian police at a border post last month.

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