The Real Reason Behind Anti-American Protests

If 2011 was about celebrating revolution, 2012 is about recognizing the risks that emerge from political vacuums. The most important thing for the U.S. to do now is to redouble our efforts to help build stable democratic institutions.
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The pictures all seem to blur together. From Morocco to Indonesia, it has become difficult to differentiate between the widespread protests, between the anti-American chants, and even the black flags of Al Qaeda. But have the protests unfolding throughout the Islamic world really all been the same? Why have some turned violent and others haven't?

A hint: The answers have nothing to do with a pitiful film. They also have little to do with public opinion or even America.

The protests have unfolded -- and will continue to unfold -- differently in different countries because of one underlying reason: a crisis of authority. To understand why this is the case, you have to look closer at the four countries where protests have been most pronounced.

Yes, protests have taken place in at least 12 countries around the world, but only in four countries have the protests turned exceptionally violent, killed American personnel or destroyed American property. Libya, of course, was the nadir: our ambassador was killed and our consulate in Benghazi was destroyed. In Egypt, our embassy compound was scaled and two died in related protests. In Tunisia, fires raged at our embassy while an American school burned. In Yemen, protesters stormed our embassy and four have died so far.

This is not a coincidence. The uprisings that swept authoritarian leaders from power last year affected the entire region. No country's political system is the same after the Arab Spring. But only in four countries did authoritarian leaders actually fall. Only in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen were longstanding rulers actually pushed from power. And in these countries, crises of authority are most acute.

Authoritarianism by its nature controls public unrest. That's partly what enamored the West with the old tyrants of the Middle East: Mubarak in Egypt, Ben Ali in Tunisia, Saleh in Yemen, and even recently, Gaddafi in Libya. Dictators mistreated their people, but policy makers stomached this because they also appeared to keep the peace.

Today, the new leaders of these four countries -- the leaders trying to replace dictatorships with democracy -- face tall tasks. If 2011 was about celebrating revolution, 2012 is about recognizing the risks that emerge from political vacuums. In some cases, such as Libya and Yemen, new leaders have been unable to control mobs. They simply do not possess the requisite control over significant swaths of the country or even of their own security services.

In other cases, especially Egypt and to a lesser degree Tunisia, new leaders have been less than willing or even ambivalent about containing protests or controlling new political oppositions, however radical or nefarious. The biggest fear facing these new leaders is appearing too similar to their predecessors. They replaced leaders who killed protesters or stifled dissent. They replaced leaders who were perceived as coddling American interests. These new post-Arab Spring rulers were supposed to be different.

Thus, it's not that people hate America more in Libya than, say, in Algeria; or that citizens are somehow inherently more violent in Yemen than in Jordan. It is that in Libya and Yemen, leaders are facing the real challenges of breaking free from authoritarianism and the responsibilities of building accountable security forces that come with it.

Americans are justifiably concerned about this virulent increase in anti-Americanism protests, about the new rise of radical groups, and particularly about the inability of Arab leaders to curtail these alarming developments. This past week, former Senator Norm Coleman asked Americans to consider whether the citizens of the Middle East were better off today than they were four years ago. But a former lawmaker should know that building strong democracies takes time. Creating genuine political institutions (in many cases, from scratch), writing constitutions, and shoring up authority is difficult and challenging work.

The most important thing for the U.S. to do now is to redouble our efforts to help build stable democratic institutions. This is not about us; it is about them.

Avi M. Spiegel is completing a book about young Islamist activists -- at who they are and how battles brewing between them will shape the future of the Arab world.

CORRECTION: A previous version of this post stated that an American restaurant (KFC) was burned by protesters in Tunisia. An American school was burned by the protesters.

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