Middle East Protests: A Salafist Trap

By Fawaz Gerges

There's increasing evidence that the attacks against American diplomatic missions in the Arab world have more to do with internecine battles than anger against a sacrilegious film clip. The attacks in Egypt, Libya and Yemen were spearheaded by ultraconservative Salafis, to gain political advantage over mainstream Islamist rivals, such as the Muslim Brotherhood. The challenge for the U.S. and the West is not to fall in this Salafist trap.

After the ouster of Arab dictators, a fierce political struggle continues over the identity of the Arab state among religious-based and liberal-minded activists, a clash playing out on multiple levels. The Salafis are spearheading a drive to institute Islamic law or Shariah, desperately trying to outbid mainstream Islamists who recently won parliamentary majorities in Tunisia, Egypt and Morocco. The film provided the Salafis an issue to exploit on a platter.

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Evidence suggests that the attack on the Americans in Libya was calculated, carried out by a small Salafi-Jihadi group called Ansar Al-Shariah, an Al-Qaeda-like outfit. Ansar Al-Shariah apparently infiltrated relatively peaceful protests and struck the U.S. consulate, killing the ambassador and three employees.

The Salafis have become the wild card in almost every Arab country. Although most do not use violence, a small but potent segment called Salafi-Jihadis subscribe to Al Qaeda's extremist ideology and tactics. Factions threaten to plunge Libya, Yemen and Egypt into instability.

With the killing of four U.S. officials, foreign policy has at last intruded into the presidential campaign, previously dominated by domestic concerns, particularly a weak economy. Complexity of the situation was missed. Seizing the crisis as political opportunity even as the protests were underway, Republican Party nominee Mitt Romney criticized President Barack Obama's response as apologetic and "disgraceful." Obama accused his challenger of having a tendency to "shoot first and aim later."

Romney has sharply criticized the president's foreign policies, particularly in the greater Middle East. He has charged Obama with failing to lead on the world stage, supposedly making Americans less safe. The premise underlying Romney's rhetoric is that Obama is an apologist for America's enemies, that he has weakened the country's global leadership.

For example, Romney asserts that re-electing Obama would result in Iran having a nuclear weapon, without offering a different strategy. Romney's key difference with Obama is that he'd give Israel carte blanche to do what it pleased, implicitly implying that he'd back an Israeli military strike against Iran.

On Syria, Romney faults Obama for not taking "more assertive steps" to topple Bashar al-Assad. Again, he provides no alternative strategy.

Romney accused Obama of showing his hand to the Taliban by announcing a timeline for withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan, but also claims to accept the 2014 time line.

Despite such accusations, opinion polls show that a plurality of Americans still trust Obama to do a better job handling international affairs than Romney.

In reality, Obama has not departed from the Washington foreign-policy consensus. His approach is consistent with that of moderate Republicans, thus neutralizing Romney's ability to gain political advantage. Obama has reversed some of the worst ideological excesses of his predecessor, only bringing the United States back to a cautious middle.

Obama seized on Americans' desire to see the country move away from militant unilateralism and return to the traditional multilateralism in international affairs that had steered the nation through the first decade following the end of the Cold War.

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Fawaz A. Gerges is a professor of international relations at the London School of Economics, where he directs the Middle East Centre. His book "Obama and the Middle East: The End of America's Moment?" was published in May. © 2012 Yale Center for the Study of Globalization

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