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Middle East protests: Signs of hope, challenge for fledgling democracies

The amplification of extreme voices is one consequence of budding democracies in the Middle East, but citizens insist that those voices remain on the fringe.

By Staff writer, Correspondent, Correspondent / September 25, 2012

An Egyptian protesting a film ridiculing the prophet Muhammad stomps on the roof of a car in Tahrir Square in Cairo Sept. 15 before police cleared the area.

AP

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Jerusalem; Cairo; and Rabat, Morocco

The Libyan public's backlash this weekend against a militant group blamed for killing Amb. J. Christopher Stevens underscores that the violent hatred unleashed by an anti-Islam film is supported by only a tiny fraction of Islam's more than 1.5 billion adherents. But as Arabs strive to establish new governments in the wake of the 2011 uprisings, those minorities pose challenges far beyond their size – not only for their governments, but for US policy.

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After decades of promoting democracy, the US is getting an early glimpse of what free societies will look like in the Middle East – and the kind of views that may be expressed. The opening up of public life has allowed for the airing of deep anti-American sentiment, built up over decades of US support for Israel and dictatorial Arab governments. It has also empowered the voice of long-repressed Islamist groups, some of whom were voted into power.

Most citizens in the region would likely agree that the anti-Islam film "Innocence of Muslims" should be banned. But they also say that the recent violence against US targets does not reflect broader public sentiment. And many are optimistic about democracy's possibilities, even if their priorities ultimately are different from those of Western societies.

But Israel, a key American partner in the region, argues that this upsurge of free expression is anything but democratic. It has been vocal in its criticism of Washington as naive about democratic development – and the challenge posed by rising Islamist powers, especially hard-line factions.

"The radicals are a minority, but that's also the case with the terrorists…. You cannot ignore them," says Eli Shaked, former Israeli ambassador to Egypt. "Washington should stop expecting the Arabs to become democratic tomorrow or the day after tomorrow or in the near future. It's impossible. Democracy should come after a long process of democratization that should start in schools, in textbooks." Children should grow up learning the values" that are second nature in Western societies, he says.

Coping with power vacuums 

Libya was the scene of the worst violence, but it was also the Arab country that arguably moved fastest to condemn it. Three days after the Sept. 11 attack on the US Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, which killed US Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three colleagues, as Muslims elsewhere launched fresh attacks, Libyans had already begun marching in rejection of the violence, telling Americans that – in the words of one placard – "We are sorry." On Sept. 21, thousands protested once again and attacked the compound of Ansar al-Sharia, a militant Islamist group that some have accused of killing Ambassador Stevens. 

Libya's fledgling government has vowed to hunt down the perpetrators of the Benghazi attack, which some officials said was preplanned by a militant group, not simply a protest that escalated. But the lack of a strong, unified national security force raises questions about how easy that will be.

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