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After Libyan Embassy Attacks, Witnessing a Battle of Ideas in the Arab World

September 13, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
As a fledgling democracy, Libya faces many challenges, including maintaining sensitivity to religious factions who find themselves at odds with the ruling elite. Jeff Brown talks to Carnegie Endowment for International Peace's Marwan Muasher, Philadelphia Inquirer's Trudy Rubin and Al-Arabiya News' Hisham Melhem for more.
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JEFFREY BROWN: And we return to the still unfolding events in the Middle East to ask, as Secretary of State Clinton did yesterday after the death of U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens, how could this happen?

Joining us, Marwan Muasher, who served as Jordan’s deputy prime minister and foreign minister earlier this decade. He’s now vice president for studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Trudy Rubin, a foreign affairs columnist for The Philadelphia Inquirer.

And Hisham Melhem, Washington bureau chief of Al-Arabiya News.

Marwan Muasher, I want to start with you.

Secretary Clinton asked that question clearly thinking about the developments you have seen over the last couple years with the Arab spring. How could it have happened? What’s your answer?

MARWAN MUASHER, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace: Well, I think there’s a notion in this country that transformational changes take place almost overnight.

That’s why the misnomer the Arab spring. And in any transformation and change, one needs to understand that this is not going to result in democracies overnight.

I think what happened in Libya basically is as much about local tensions as it is about the film. The Salafis in Libya didn’t win but a single seat in Parliament, and they were trying to exploit feelings against America to gain some popularity.

But beyond all that, I think one needs to also acknowledge there that there’s a deep sensitivity in the Middle East against anything that has to do with Islam or the prophet. And there’s no understanding of the meaning of freedom of expression that people here in this country understand.

JEFFREY BROWN: You’re talking about the film now that…

MARWAN MUASHER: Absolutely. So we’re looking at the process of change that has started, but cannot be measured in month or years, but rather in decades.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Trudy Rubin, let me ask you, how do you answer this? What are the forces at play that you see between these new government and militant groups in the countries?

TRUDY RUBIN, The Philadelphia Inquirer: Well, I think that the militant groups who are looking to exploit political openings are just trolling for films like this, a film, a cartoon.

In Egypt, you had a militant preacher on a satellite network who publicized this.

This is the way they can gather crowds. This is the way they can gather support. So this doesn’t necessarily represent a majority. And these films would never get attention were it not that — the Internet. And the people who are looking to exploit these openings want to play with this.

You also have governments as in Egypt, an Islamist government that is rather centrist and might be pragmatic, but is looking to its right flank, because you have elected Salafis, hard-line Islamists and unelected who are looking to push the centrist government. And the question is whether Mohammed Morsi has the courage to stare them down.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, Hisham Melhem, another way of asking it is, how much of this is genuine anti-Americanism or anti-West and how much of it is political opportunism or something else?

HISHAM MELHEM, Al-Arabiya Television: It’s all of the above.

JEFFREY BROWN: All of the above.

HISHAM MELHEM: There is a residual of anti-Americanism in the Middle East that goes back decades because of the traditional American support for autocratic, repressive Arab regimes and because of the failure on the part of the United States to resolve the Arab/Israeli conflict.

Having said that, there’s a lot of opportunism there. There are a lot of leaders who are not interested in solving the depressing economic, social problems that they have, including the president of Egypt, Mohammed Morsi, I would argue.

So what you have now are groups of Salafists, extreme Islamists, who have nothing positive about the West, who see the West as a decadent, hedonistic, evil force. It’s part of their tradition.

And then you have so-called mainstream Islamists. Unlike my friend Trudy, I have a more jaundiced view of all Islamists.

And I think what you have now is a competition between the extreme, extreme Islamists and the so-called mainstream Islamists to determine the future of these societies that went through these tremendous transitions.

Now these societies are going through transitions. Some of them are ruled by brutal governments or authorities like in Libya.

And others, as in Egypt, are trying to sort out a tremendous amount of change at a time when they are ruled by men, essentially men, who are not powerful enough, who are not authentic enough to deal with these problems.

I was shocked by the reaction of Mohammed Morsi, who showed no sensitivity, no sense of remorse.

JEFFREY BROWN: Until today.

HISHAM MELHEM: Until today, 24 hours. And, yesterday, he published something horrendous on his Facebook page essentially denouncing the film, asking his ambassador to charge these people legally in the United States, and in the middle of that said, yes, we should protect foreign delegations.

JEFFREY BROWN: What do you make of the argument — the sort of competition going on among different forces?

MARWAN MUASHER: There is competition between certainly the mainstream Islam and the Salafi Islam, which is violent and radical, as Hisham said.

But I also agree that this is a moment of leadership. These people are in power today, and they have to exercise leadership and come out very strongly against acts of violence.

I mean, freedom of expression, protests are fine, but acts of violence shouldn’t be tolerated in any way, shape, of form.

And particularly for an Islamist government, as in Egypt, this is the time to show leadership and tell its people that there are limits to what they can do in terms of protests and that violence shouldn’t be tolerated.

JEFFREY BROWN: Trudy Rubin, I want to ask you about that quote we saw from President [Obama] earlier in the program, where he said — speaking of Egypt, that is — he said: “I don’t think we should consider them an ally, but we don’t consider them an enemy.”

So, what is our relationship now to these new governments?

TRUDY RUBIN: I think, as others have used this word, it’s frenemies.

And I agree with Hisham Melhem about Morsi’s tendencies. There’s no question that, in this crisis, he basically tried to play to the crowd. He didn’t crack down. He didn’t confront. And he is using the Salafis to his right as an excuse to look like a centrist.

But I think that President Obama has laid down a marker. After all, there was a delegation of businessmen, American businessmen, who were visiting Cairo just before this violence broke out. No one is going to invest in Egypt, which desperately needs investment, in these kinds of circumstances.

Egypt also is asking for a billion dollars in loan forgiveness. It gets $2 billion in aid. It is looking for IMF loans. And there’s no way that President Obama can go to Congress and ask for money for Egypt if Morsi doesn’t take a pragmatic stand.

So, he does have choices to make. And I don’t think it’s that simple for him to ignore them.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, Hisham, pick up on that, because without the U.S. support, then the — whatever you want to call it, moderate or however you want to put it, Islamist government can suffer from more extremes.

HISHAM MELHEM: Particularly in Egypt. Egypt needs the United States. Egypt needs the West. Egypt needs tourism. Egypt needs investment.

And here you have the president of the United States at this sensitive moment, after these — after the attack on the embassy there, and with the insensitivity of Mohammed Morsi, go to the Congress and ask them to forgive Egypt $1 billion in loans.

And Mohammed Morsi is going to send people to Washington, hat in hand, to ask the United States to help him with the IMF for a $5 billion loan.

Sometimes, we act as if we need Egypt more than Egypt needs us. There is a notion in Egypt that we owe them financial aid every year because it is stipulated in the peace treaty between Egypt and Israel, which is not the case, obviously.

It will take Egypt another 20 years to switch armament from the Americans to another source. He goes to China, he pretends that I can use the Chinese to put pressure on the United States.

This man is still governing as if he’s still in the opposition, as if he’s still active underground, and not as the leader of 70, 80 million people in a pivotal country. He’s acting as a leader of a fourth-rate state.

JEFFREY BROWN: In the meantime, very quickly, you imagine we will see more incidents like this?

HISHAM MELHEM: We will see more incidents because there’s no leadership on the part of those countries.

And I think — I was surprised that the president did not mention Egypt publicly when he spoke. And I think the Egyptians should be reminded that they also need the United States and that they have obligations, international legal obligations that they should live up to.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Hisham Melhem, Trudy Rubin, Marwan Muasher, thank you all very much.

And a postscript: What can the U.S. do to protect against attacks on embassies? We asked a former special agent for the State Department about how to increase security and which missions are most at risk. That’s on our World page.