Radicals who were kept at bay or in prison under dictators such as Qadhafi and Mubarak are now free to pursue their agendas

If Muammar Qadhafi were still alive he might give a bitter laugh to hear the news that the U.S. ambassador to Libya had been killed in Benghazi. Hosni Mubarak, in his prison hospital, would growl a wry “I told you so” after the attack on the fortress-like American embassy in Cairo.

Two onslaughts in two of the cities that witnessed the historic drama of the Arab spring last year do not an Islamist winter make. But both underline the glowering and dangerous presence of the sort of radical Muslim fundamentalists whom the old regimes kept at bay or in prison and who are now free to pursue their agendas. Qadhafi and Mubarak may have been unreconstructed dictators, but by and large they did Washington’s bidding. And U.S. diplomats were usually safe.

Libya is the more disturbing case. On a day when Qadhafi’s democratically elected heirs were due to announce a new Prime Minister, it will be infuriating to have global attention diverted to the Salafi extremists of Ansar al-Sharia who attacked the Benghazi consulate with rocket-propelled grenades - and killed an American official who was instrumental in helping overthrow the man who ruled unchallenged for 42 years. It will also highlight the grave problem of security as the authorities in Tripoli struggle to create a functioning national police force and control militia weapons.

Conspiracy theories are two a penny in the Middle East, but it was surely no coincidence that both incidents took place on September 11 — a date that will be associated with the notion of an inevitable “clash of civilisations” long after both Osama bin Laden and George W. Bush are gone.

In the Cairo demonstration much was made of the role of the brother of Ayman al-Zawahri, Bin Laden’s Egyptian successor, and of the sinister black Salafi flags carried by demonstrators. Still, the target in both cities was a crude and poisonously anti-Muslim film made in the U.S. and circulated on YouTube — evidence of American arrogance and prejudice rather than anything directly political.

Mr. Obama certainly faced criticism in Egypt for backing Mubarak until the end, but the U.S. has not wavered since in its support for Cairo’s new regime — now led by Mohamed Morsy’s Muslim Brotherhood. Libyans know that the U.S. backed last year’s U.N. resolution that led to a no-fly zone, NATO intervention, and Qadhafi’s demise. Salafi groups in Tunisia — a thorn in the side of the Muslim Brotherhood government there, also called for anti-U.S. protests. (Salafis, like Islamists, come in different shapes: all are socially conservative but not all condone violence.) Islam is by definition wider than any issue of national politics, and these incidents highlight the uncomfortable truth that the U.S. remains deeply unpopular across the Muslim world, as shown again by a recent YouGov poll. Iraq, Afghanistan, and above all the enduring Israeli-Palestinian conflict remain open sores.

But religion and politics make for a toxic combination. “The U.S. has killed hundreds of thousands of unnamed Muslims in 9/11 revenge wars,” commented the Palestinian rights advocate Ali Abunimah. “Media dehumanisation helps make this possible.” Coming at the height of the U.S. Presidential campaign the attacks seem likely to curb what little enthusiasm remains for U.S. intervention in the Arab world as the fear of Islamist chaos overwhelms hope for the springtime of Arab democracy. “Libya and Egypt need the U.S. now more than ever at precisely the same moment that U.S. is least willing and able to play that role,” warned the analyst Shadi Hamid of the Brookings Institution.

Syrians still hoping that the U.S. will back a Libya-style intervention or send arms to the rebels will surely be disappointed. Others pray that the influence of Saudi-financed Salafis among the anti-Assad forces will be limited. “Perhaps,” tweeted one secular Syrian opposition activist, “the terrible incidents of today will finally teach the west to not… support and arm Islamist extremist militants.” Arab governments generally want to get on well with Washington, but given the background it is a relationship that will always be vulnerable to provocations by extremists on both sides. For too many across the region, Pastor Terry Jones looks more influential than Barack Obama. — Copyright: Guardian News Service

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