Wall Street Journal

Posted by Wall Street Journal on September 13, 2012 in News Clips

BEIRUT—The attacks in Libya and Egypt and the related demonstrations roiling the Middle East stand as a defining moment for the nascent leaders of the Arab Spring.

The events represent the first major test on the international stage for the new governments of Libya, Egypt, Tunisia and Yemen to navigate the often contradictory demands of global statesmanship and domestic politics, a terrain that is difficult even for seasoned leaders.

Their decisions in the coming days and weeks—such as whether to appease Islamist hard-liners or stand with more moderate forces, to stoke confrontation with the West or speak out for cooperation—could begin to flesh out answers to questions about their democratic trajectory, national identities, social fabric and relationships with the U.S.

"This is not just about a video," said Rebecca Abou Chedid, a member of the Arab American Institute's National Policy Council, referring to the American-made, anti-Muslim video linked to the events. "Tectonic plates are shifting and we have no idea what these new governments are building. They don't know themselves. There is a vacuum of what does it mean to be Libyan, what does it mean to be a progressive Arab or a moderate Islamist."

"Events like this force them to answer all these questions that they never even probably posed to themselves before," she added.

The broader public reactions from within countries newly freed from authoritarian rule, including the size and depth of popular protests and the political calculations made by democratically elected leaders also will signal how fringe or mainstream are various strains of anti-American hatred.

Andrew Tabler, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said it is unclear how deep-seated are those feelings in the region's countries, but that any signs of profound anti-Americanism is "going to seriously constrain a country's ability to have an alliance with the U.S."

Ironically, the Libya attack comes in a country where the U.S. enjoys good will generated from its role in helping to overthrow Moammar Gadhafi last year and which was moving forward in creating democratic institutions, and one of the few new regional governments not dominated by Islamists. Libya's new government was quick to apologize and forcefully denounced the attack.

Demonstrators in the streets of Benghazi, where the U.S. Consulate was attacked and four American diplomats killed, waved signs reading "Sorry America." It appears that a lone group plotted to carry out the Libya attack, a less troubling scenario for Washington than if it had been the spontaneous outbursts of a violent mob, which would suggest broader anti-U.S. anger.

Egypt's new president, Mohammed Morsi, in contrast, has been slow to respond to continuing popular protests against the U.S. in Cairo. He gave his first public statement only on Thursday, two days after protesters breached the U.S. Embassy's walls in Cairo while Egyptian riot police looked on. Even then, he pledged to stop future attacks on embassies, but stopped short of condemning the incident. Instead, the Islamist organization he once led, the Muslim Brotherhood, called for further demonstrations Friday.

"I think Morsi is hanging back and trying to not to give up too much too early, and in the U.S. he's paying an enormous price for it," said Josh Stacher, an Egypt expert at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.

Mr. Obama fired an unprecedented warning shot across Mr. Morsi's bow on Wednesday night when he told a Spanish-language news channel that Egypt is "not an ally, but we don't consider them an enemy."

How these governments respond will have a major impact on the bloodiest conflict of all, Syria, where an Islamist-tinged rebel insurgency remains in desperate need of more outside aid to overthrow the regime of Bashar al-Assad.

"It's going to be difficult to make the case for any kind of direct intervention at this point," said Emile Hokayem, a Middle East analyst with the International Institute for Strategic Studies. "The U.S. won't give these different rebel groups in Syria any benefit of the doubt after what happened in Libya."

Syria's opposition activists were quick to realize they were likely to pay the steepest price for the attack in Libya.

"It means that any chance for intervention in our fight has been severely reduced," said Shakeeb Jabri, a Syrian opposition activist based in Beirut. "We're angry at the Egyptians and the Libyans who saw fit to kill people and storm embassies over a stupid movie but do nothing while Syrian troops are destroying real mosques every day."

But the shock of the deadly attack in Libya could yet spur the sort of internal house cleaning that occurred in Iraq when Sunni tribes banded together and allied with the U.S. against Al Qaeda in response to that group's brutality and Islamist puritanism.

In Syria, there have been scattered reports in recent weeks of rebel units going after more extremists iterations in their midst. In eastern Libya, where the central government has little control, it may similarly fall on pro-American Libyan militias to bring those responsible for the attack on the U.S. consulate to justice.

"In Syria its clear that there are rebel factions angry at the more radical ones," said Mr. Hokayem. "They think they're ruining their image among the international community."

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