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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

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    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.
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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.

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.

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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.

For more than 40 years, Muammar Qaddafi was the government of Libya, favoring personal authority over real civic institutions. Libya has had to build a government from scratch while contending with new militias emboldened by Mr. Qaddafi's fall. It is trying to capitalize on public anger over the Sept. 11 attack to force rogue militias to disarm. 

Most Libyans reject the violent ideology espoused by militant Salafi groups.

"They should have done a demonstration according to the values of the prophet – peacefully," says Ebtehaj Zariba, a student in Tripoli. She is against the film, but also against violence.

"Now what I'm worried about most is Libya's image abroad," she says. "That people will get the idea that there's no security."

Likewise, in Tunisia, some are exasperated that the government failed to discipline Salafi activists in the wake of a Sept. 14 assault on the US embassy and a nearby American school.

Two days later, police allowed a Salafi leader wanted in connection with the attack to slip out of a Tunis, Tunisia, mosque. Authorities said police withdrew to avoid a potentially violent confrontation. But the security forces' legitimacy is shaky after trying to suppress last year's revolution, says Henry Smith, a Middle East and North Africa analyst at Control Risks, a British risk assessment firm. "Moving against protesters condemning the film might be seen as further politically damaging given the sensitivities over its content," he says.

Similar issues are at play in Egypt, where Salafis initiated the original protest – although others joined them, including a group of soccer fans who claimed to be the ones to bring down the American flag.

Salafis, who once eschewed politics, have become a force to be reckoned with, challenging the Muslim Brotherhood's hegemony on political Islam and putting Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi in a difficult position when it came to patching up relations with the US after the violence. Too strong a condemnation could make the Salafis look like the stronger defenders of Islam and allow his opponents to portray him as too concerned with US interests.

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Tunisian President Moncef Marzouki summed up a common sentiment in a video message on his Facebook page after the Sept. 14 attack: "What happened on Friday is not Tunisia." He also condemned the film as a similar gesture – albeit a nonviolent one – of extremism, and asked that neither side see such provocations as representative of the minority. "Be assured that we do not lump together a few extremist individuals and the entire American people," he said. "Neither do we wish to see the Tunisian people reduced to a group of religious radicals."

Many Muslims in the region, as well as in the US, have been quick to reject accusations that the recent violence reflects fundamental problems with Islamic theology or culture.

"Timothy McVeigh does not represent Christianity, does not represent the United States," says Mustafa Abu Sway, a professor of philosophy and Islamic studies at Al Quds University in Jerusalem, referring to the 1995 Oklahoma City bomber whose attack killed 167 people.

According to a survey released in July by the Pew Global Attitudes Project, support for hard-line groups across the Muslim world – from Al Qaeda to the Taliban to Hamas – has steadily declined over the past five years.

Roughly two-thirds of Egyptians and Tunisians say democracy is the preferable form of government, with even more saying they're optimistic that the 2011 uprisings will usher in more democracy in their countries.

But Egyptians and Tunisians may have a different model in mind; in a Pew survey of the Muslim world last year, respondents ranked free speech as the fifth most important of six democratic principles, while economic prosperity topped the list.

Indeed, while the anti-Islam film sparked the protests, historical grievances and economic frustration provided ample fuel.

The historical context of the US in the region – including decades of support for authoritarian regimes, the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, overt support for Israel, and a pervasive feeling that America has made war on Islam – is important to consider. Some argue that, although the film sparked the protests, it was longstanding anti-US sentiment that really fueled them.

"Nobody wants to talk about the fact that it wasn't just about the film," says Hisham Hellyer, a fellow with the Brookings Institution in Washington, who is based in Cairo. "A lot of them were protesting because they wanted to give the US a bloody nose. There's broader anti-American sentiment here, and it's got nothing to do with the film."

For many, however, the economy is a far greater concern than the YouTube clip.

A video of the Tunis attack, posted on YouTube by the liberal Tunisian blog Nawaat shows young men – some bearded, some in vaguely Afghan dress – charging the embassy. "Unemployment!" says one young protester to the camera, pointing to himself.

"['Innocence of Muslims'] is a bad film, and America should have banned it," says Egyptian Hassan Osman, who worked at his security job rather than heading to Tahrir Square to protest. "But we have many other things to worry about in Egypt. We don't need to burn down embassies because of a film. Look, we still can't support our families on our salaries. This is what we should protest in Tahrir."

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