The riots in the Middle East are spreading like wildfire. With one fell swoop, religious zealots fueled with anti-West and anti-American sentiment set the region ablaze, from Benghazi, Libya, to Cairo, Egypt and then on to Sanaa, Yemen.
Some two years after the start of the Arab Spring the masses in the Arab world now have an old-new mantra that they can chant to vent their anger and frustration. These sentiments were not about to simply disappear with the overthrow of the despotic Arab regimes. Rather, they seemed to have intensified.
The pretext for this latest violent outbreak was the offensive YouTube movie that attacks Islam and ridicules the Prophet Muhammad. But in keeping with tradition, the movie simply served as a pretext for the uneducated masses to take to the streets. The last time around the attacks came after a Danish paper published denigrating cartoons of Muhammad, in 2005. This provoked protesters to torch Western embassies (mainly Scandinavian missions), and to attack Western tourists and diplomats.
The Americans were caught off guard this week. The U.S., which had helped Libya, Egypt and Yemen topple their dictatorships, did not anticipate such large-scale protests there, nor did it properly appreciate the strong anti-American sentiments harbored by the masses who stormed the embassies. The low point was the assassination of the U.S. ambassador to Libya.
American policy makers had hoped that the Arab Spring they helped spread in the region would foster democracy, transparency and tolerance, not to mention shore-up Washington's standing in the region by winning the hearts and minds of the Arab masses, at least in Libya, Egypt and other like-minded nations. Sadly, their vision has failed to materialize.
While Libyan and Yemeni officials were quick to denounce the violence, this full-throated disavowal is nothing but hollow rhetoric. For quite some time these regimes have not been able to assert control over their own people. Over in Egypt, it took a painstakingly long time for President Mohammed Morsi to finally issue a statement. This is troubling in and of itself, in light of the fact that the Muslim Brotherhood, his longtime ally, actually went so far as to condone the violence and praise it.
President Barack Obama indicated this week that Egypt should no longer be regarded as a U.S. ally, or for that matter, an enemy. [The White House later clarified that the president simply noted that the two countries have no official alliance like NATO member states.] Let's hope this statement is not just meant for domestic consumption, to cater to public sentiment ahead of the presidential elections. Let's hope this reflects a new, more sober U.S. administration that is no longer blindsided by its Arab Spring fantasies and that it has finally come to terms with the precarious and dangerous phase the region is going through right now. Let's hope Obama now fully comprehends the "handle with care" label attached to the region's so-called march to freedom and democracy as it loosens from the tight grip of its once-dominant strongmen.