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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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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.

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"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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