Published:

Screen shot 2012-09-15 at 18.52.59Garvan Walshe was National and International Security Policy
Adviser for the Conservative Party until 2008. He is now studying for a
PhD at the Universit
y of Manchester, and is managing partner at The
Research Department, a consultancy.

Throw a stone, fill a petrol bomb, burn a flag, my friend, you're right to be angry. Heighten, your Marxist granddad would have said, the contradictions.

We should know better now of course, but the pictures of angry crowds still awaken instincts: the fear of the rampaging mob, the righteous fury of the dispossessed. The truth is less emotional, reality more the result of political calculation. The date it started, 11 September, is hardly a coincidence. The demonstrations small, though armed and unpeaceful. The film, offensive though it is, too obscure for many people to have actually watched it. Pretext more than cause for extremists in need of attention.


The last years have been bad for Islamist fanatics. Sidelined by revolutions they didn't start, deprived of local strongmen to depose and missing an American president it's easy to hate, now even the Taliban have hinted they might acquiesce in an American role in Afghanistan. The attack on the consulate in Benghazi and the sieges of embassies are desperate attempts to provoke, to spark disproportionate retaliation and derail the transitions to democracy.

A solider once told me this isn't an Arab 1989; yet 1989 was unusual. Tyrants rule through their own person. If they find institutions when they take power, they leave broken facades when they are deposed. The men with guns who helped remove the strongman stake their claims to what's left. It's rare for a democracy to take hold straight away. Expect street violence, plotting generals, the murky dealings of lonely men laid off by disbanded security agencies. Armed bands, terrorist attacks and smooth-talking extremists promising redemption.

Those things are normal, for "transition" is as much as struggle for democracy as the revolution was against a dictator.  Spain needed six or seven years, and the unexpected courage of a young king. It's been only twenty months since Muhammad Bouazizi set himself on fire in Tunisia.

In Syria, people are still being murdered as the old dictator clings on. In Libya the new state is still too weak. And in Egypt the unlikely Muhammad Morsi is beginning to betray signs that he knows exactly where the power is hidden. These riots caught him out. He needs to make sure the American embassy is protected. He's president now; he was too late, and it seems that members of his party were involved in fanning the demonstrations. He'll have to do better next time, especially if the next incident involves some confrontation with Israel or emerges from air strikes against Iran's nuclear programme.  Morsi himself appears to be more ruthless bureaucrat than not the rabble-rousing populist, but he needs to fend off challenges from people who are. They will exploit the myth of the unpredictable "Arab street" to win attention and to find people they can identify as enemies against whom they can rally.

Immediately after the 7/7 bombings all kinds of British Islamist extremists popped up to pass their sectarian doctrines off as the whole of Islam, and too many gullible politicians fell for it, speaking at their events and awarding them money under the pretext of "preventing extremism." In the same way the fanatics attacking the embassies want to present themselves as the "real" voice of the Arab world.

Now the extremists may be loud but they are just one strand in newly free Middle Eastern politics, outnumbered by the many more who haven't rioted; who believe in free speech; or who, even if they found the film grotesque, don't think attacking the American embassy is right thing to do in response.

The day after Ambassador Christopher Stevens was murdered, I saw that Arab friends of mine had been circulating tributes to him on facebook. Messages of condolence, respect, tolerance, and enlightenment.

If we abandon faith in the Arab Spring, we abandon them too.

Comments are closed.