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Thursday 24 Aug 2017 | 04:21 | SYDNEY
Thursday 24 Aug 2017 | 04:21 | SYDNEY

Arab anger not just about a film

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14 September 2012 12:20

We are told that the murder of American diplomats in Libya, attacks on American embassies in Egypt and Yemen and protests outside other American missions in the region, including in Tunisia, Morocco and Sudan, was sparked by a cheap film made in America attacking Islam.

No film, however idiotic in conception and offensive in execution, justifies murder and violence. But the current violence and protest in the Arab world is not just about a film and reflects a number of factors, some that have much to do with America and some that don't.

The first of these is Arab anger toward the US. This well of ill-feeling is not new, although it has been filling more rapidly in the past 15 years. This is not necessarily a criticism of US policy in the Middle East. In the last decade and a half America has done things in the region that have been variously dumb, morally suspect, poorly communicated, understandable, positive and entirely necessary. Whether Arab anger at America is justified, wrongheaded or manipulated, this is the reality America faces, but it is a complex reality because the Arab world still needs, and often likes, the A to Z of America, from aircraft carriers to zombie movies.

Second, the Arab uprisings have made some Arabs angrier at America, but the real change is that they have brought to power governments whose ability and/or willingness to control violent manifestations of popular anger is weaker than that of the regimes they replaced. 

In Egypt, for example, former President Hosni Mubarak was not above stoking a bit of anti-Americanism when it served his political interests. His regime also allowed protests against the US on occasion, for example over the invasion of Iraq, but set clear red lines with protesters that were often brutally enforced by the Interior Ministry.

Today, however, both the red-lines for protest and the mechanisms to enforce them are weaker. The Interior Ministry and the police are in disarray, while politically the government walks a finer line. Even though President Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood have been building bridges with the US Government, they are mindful of the anger of their own constituents toward America and were thus slow to condemn the violence.

Third, this violence does not just reflect anger towards America. Whatever the Arab uprisings will eventually make of Libyan, Egyptian and Yemeni societies, they have for the moment made them more lawless and have accentuated social and economic problems. The involvement of football 'ultras' in the protests in Egypt, for example, suggests that the violence reflects some degree of mob activism. And you cannot rule out the possibility of political opponents using protests to undermine or embarrass new governments.

Fourth, extremism is making a comeback, although for how long and in what form is not yet clear. The fact that the Arab uprisings has weakened interior ministries in the region may be a good thing in the long run, given the role that their prisons and torture chambers served as incubators for extremist ideas and activists. But in the short run it has opened new opportunities for extremist movements to re-group and in some cases, such as in Libya, to re-arm with sophisticated weapons from looted military armouries. All of this coincides, unhelpfully, with the looming and mostly ignominious American and NATO drawdown in Afghanistan and the mess in Pakistan. 

So what can America do? A lot of advice will fill the pages of blogs and foreign policy journals in coming weeks. Some suggestions will be better than others: change US policies, renew the Middle East Peace Process, support democratisation, stop supporting democratisation, improve public diplomacy, use more social media, more drone strikes, fewer drone strikes, abandon the Middle East, re-engage with it, pivot to Asia, re-balance, re-set, abort. 

My advice, from the lyrics of a favourite Radiohead song: 'breathe, keep breathing'. There are no silver bullets for managing America's relationships in the Middle East and things will probably only get harder in coming years. But there is no escaping, much less pivoting from, those interests either. 

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