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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.

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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. 

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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."

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