The anti-Western protests’ breadth and ferocity underscore how the complex roots of Arab and Muslim rage run deep. Both the anti-Muslim video and the region’s violent reaction deserve condemnation. Yet, understanding the origins of such deep-seated anger and working constructively in the Arab world—where the protests began—to help ameliorate discontent are equally essential and serve long-term U.S. interests.
The incendiary anti-Muslim video that initially ignited the protests tapped a much deeper vein of anger and mistrust hearkening back generations. Anti-Western sentiment has long flourished in the Middle East, nurtured by the disappointing legacy of colonialism, the painful consequences of the unresolved Arab-Israeli conflict, and a widening gulf of Muslim-Western cultural misunderstanding. The “Arab awakening” that dawned nearly two years ago is not an antidote to these feelings. Instead it, allows for their amplification and, in some cases, exploitation by extremist elements. Many Arab societies are no longer encumbered by autocratic regimes. Instead, they are rousing from decades of repression, allowing for a more free-wheeling environment that encompasses all kinds from start-up entrepreneurs to Salafist extremists.
The Arab revolts successfully overthrew dictators in four countries and unleashed a powerful dynamic agitating for change across the region. Yet, change has not come quickly enough. The instability that accompanied the uprisings has exacerbated economic ills. Youth unemployment across the region now averages 25 percent, while economic growth continues to stagnate. The Egyptian economy, for example, grew at just 2 percent this past year. As a result, popular expectations for jobs and a better life remain unmet, compounding the anger of those who rioted in the streets. Many protestors reportedly had not even seen the offending video, swept up instead by a wave of free-floating frustration anchored in the struggles of the current transitions as much as anger toward the West.
Regional governments must take the lead. They bear the responsibility to restrain their publics, restore law and order, and provide adequate security for Western embassies and other facilities. Equally important, these governments must rise to meet the demands of their restive populations. However, the Arab world’s economic challenges are significant and cannot be addressed without outside assistance. The Arab world must transform its moribund economies by building vibrant private sectors that trade with each other and the rest of the world. To do this, the region requires billions of dollars in foreign investment and greater access to financing, technological know-how and training.
The United States cannot provide massive aid for the Arab transitions, but it can still play a key supporting role. Stepping up U.S. leadership and diplomacy to help resolve the region’s festering conflicts is critical for stability. Transferring American ideals of innovation and entrepreneurship, via both public and private engagement, would provide an important boost to nascent Arab private sectors.
The death of the U.S. ambassador to Libya and three other American diplomats, along with violent attacks on US embassies in the region, has elicited some calls for the United States to withdraw its support from countries such as Egypt and Libya. But the United States must remain engaged in this vital region of the world. As the most populous Arab nation, Egypt holds particular importance. Just prior to the American trade delegation, senior U.S. government officials were negotiating in Cairo to provide $1 billion in debt relief, as well as $375 million in financing and loan guarantees for American investors, and the establishment of a $60 million U.S.-Egypt Enterprise Fund. Despite the eruption of violence, the United States must remain steadfast in its commitments to Egypt and the region more broadly. Rather than withdraw from the Arab world, American public and private sectors should engage with even greater energy and help a long-repressed region finally begin to realize its aspirations.
Yacoubian directs Pathways to Progress: Peace Prosperity and Change in the Middle East, a joint initiative between the Stimson Center and the George C. Marshall Foundation.