How Arab Spring turned into protests and 'Death to America!'

An outbreak of violence in Afghanistan this weekend was testament to a clear trend: In Muslim countries now enjoying more political freedom, anti-American anger is coming to the surface.

Ahmad Jamshid/AP
Afghan police stand by burning tires during a protest in Kabul, Afghanistan, Monday.

The shouts of “Death to America!” at Kabul University this weekend were not a good sign for US policy in the Middle East and across the wider Muslim world.

The wave of anti-American violence roiling the Middle East struck Afghanistan, with protesters pelting a NATO compound in Kabul with stones and at least six more NATO troops, including four Americans, killed Saturday by Afghan soldiers.

It is further evidence that pent-up frustrations are suddenly finding an outlet through the rise of political freedom across the region – and are likely to target the United States for some time to come. With the US helping to establish democracies in Afghanistan and Iraq, and last year's Arab Spring transforming Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya, several iron-fisted regimes have been replaced by weaker and still-developing governments that are sympathetic to a popular distrust of America.

“One of the lessons here is that helping to bring down authoritarian and very repressive regimes" – like the Taliban in Afghanistan or Muammar Qaddafi in Libya – "doesn’t mean we’ll necessarily have better relations with those countries,” says James Phillips, a Middle East expert at the Heritage Foundation in Washington. “The evidence suggests the new leaders are intent on leading their countries away from the US and away from Western values.”

The protests – sparked by an online video made in America that denigrates the prophet Mohammad and Islam – also spread to Pakistan, the Philippines, Australia, and Indonesia.

The largely peaceful protests that began in Afghanistan after Friday prayers intensified Sunday and Monday, when crowds in Kabul targeted a NATO camp and students at Kabul and Herat universities demanded punishment of the makers of the video.

There were also signs that Islamist extremists were tapping into the popular ire against the US to boost their own standing – and that some populations were responding.

In Lebanon, Hezbollah leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah called for peaceful protests against the US, and in south Beirut thousands responded – some shouting, “America, hear us, don’t insult out prophet,” according to Reuters. On Saturday, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula – the Yemen affiliate that US officials consider to be the most powerful branch of Al Qaeda – called for more attacks on US diplomatic missions like the one last week in Benghazi, Libya.

That attack, which US officials say began as a protest and was “hijacked” by extremists using shoulder-fired rockets, resulted in the deaths of four US diplomatic personnel including the ambassador to Libya, J. Christopher Stevens.

“These protests are being sparked not by the movie itself, but by Islamist groups that have an interest in fanning the flames and feeding the backlash,” says Mr. Phillips.

Those who are inciting the violence are not appealing to a sudden blooming of grievances, but are in fact drawing from a deep well of anti-American sentiment. 

Public opinion surveys indicate that the US remains highly unpopular across much of the Muslim world – for reasons ranging from past US support for authoritarian rulers to America’s strong support for Israel and the unresolved Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

As a result, it seems reasonable to expect that this resentment would be manifested in countries like Egypt, Tunisia, and Afghanistan – where the avenues for political expression have recently expanded.

According to Phillips, it doesn’t help when a country’s leaders fail to act swiftly against anti-US violence, but instead appear to hesitate to gauge public opinion and how to respond.

That was not the case with Libya, where the country’s leaders quickly condemned the consulate attack – and where some Benghazi citizens paid public homage to the slain American ambassador they considered Libya’s friend.

But Phillips says the US must consider the response of Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi, who was silent on the protests targeting American interests in Egypt until President Obama called to give him a stern talk on Mr. Morsi’s international duties – like protecting diplomatic missions – as the country’s elected leader.

“Obama had intervened with the Egyptian military on behalf of the Muslim Brotherhood’s candidate so they would recognize his [Morsi’s] election,” Phillips says. “And yet shortly after that, Morsi turns his back on the US and has no comment and doesn’t act on the protests. It shows,” he adds, “that Morsi does not see it in his interest or the Muslim Brotherhood’s interest to act. And it doesn’t indicate that things will get better for the US in Egypt anytime soon.”

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