Anti-U.S. Violence in Libya and Egypt

Violence against U.S. diplomatic missions in Libya and Egypt highlights the difficult road ahead for U.S. relations with these struggling states, says CFR’s Robert Danin.

September 12, 2012

To help readers better understand the nuances of foreign policy, CFR staff writers and Consulting Editor Bernard Gwertzman conduct in-depth interviews with a wide range of international experts, as well as newsmakers.

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The twin acts of violence in Libya and Egypt on the anniversary of 9/11 highlight the difficult road ahead for U.S. relations with these nascent democracies, says Robert M. Danin, a CFR Middle East expert. However, Danin finds the response of the Libyan government, which apologized for the death of the U.S. ambassador and three other embassy officials, relatively heartening. "Those who perpetrated the attack must be brought to justice, but also, Libya needs to become not just a safer country but a country in which the government has control over all of its territory and all the people inside of it," he says. Danin, meanwhile, says the Egyptian government "has been frighteningly quiet." He says that free availability of arms in Libya offers a cautionary tale for arming opposition groups in countries such as Syria. "It is one thing to topple a leader; it is another thing to then secure the country," he says.

What’s your sense of the situation after the assassination of the U.S. ambassador and the storming of the U.S. embassy in Cairo? Does this endanger relations?

We are still in the midst of an immediate crisis in which there has been tremendous violence. This took place at a very emotional time for Americans, given that these attacks took place on 9/11. And it was an emotional time for many Muslims, given that what triggered the demonstrations were reports about a film made in the United States that is offensive to Muslims and to Islam. So this is a highly charged environment for both the United States and the Muslim world.

What is striking to me is how different the reactions have been by different parts of the Muslim and Arab world. You had this violent attack against our consulate in Libya killing four American officials. These were people who were in Libya to help the Libyan people build a better country. What is striking to me is that the Libyan government came out immediately and apologized for the assault, and extended their sympathy for the deaths to the United States. The Libyan government has said all the right things. They have apologized, they have expressed their outrage, and come out clearly and condemned what happened and apologized for it.

You contrast this with the situation in Egypt where the Muslim Brotherhood, which leads the government there, has been frighteningly quiet. They called on the United States to issue an apology for the film that has insulted the Muslim world. They have called a nationwide protest on Friday about the film.

Meanwhile, their security forces were lax in protecting the U.S. embassy. I know this territory quite well; I have visited it many, many times over several decades. The outside perimeter was basically unguarded. The protestors were able to get to the wall of the embassy, cross it, climb it. This shouldn’t have happened. They shouldn’t have had access to it. So there was a real security lapse there by the Egyptian authorities.

This is at a time when a huge group of U.S. businessmen were in Cairo talking about investment in Egypt. And the United States has announced a moratorium on $1 billion dollars in Egyptian debt. This is hardly a reaction by the Egyptian government that is going to win many fans in Congress.

It’s really hard to understand why the Egyptian government is not acting in a more responsible manner right now. The United States has condemned efforts to offend Muslims’ sensibilities. The U.S. flag was taken down and destroyed. The embassy compound, which is considered American territory, was violated. This is a serious breach of diplomatic practice. In the first instance, security should have been provided to the embassy. And the second instance, the Egyptian government should be focusing on the attack on the embassy, not trying to lead demonstrations against a film, however reprehensible it may be.

President Obama, in his statement at the White House, said, "Justice will be done" in Libya, but he never really talked about the Egyptian incident. Is that because we have too much at stake in Egypt to get into a verbal war with them?

Well, let’s talk about Libya first. First of all, we are still trying to determine who did this. A group, Ansar al-Shariya had claimed responsibility for the attack in Benghazi but then they later denied it. But nonetheless, it is clear that these were Islamist groups in Libya who attacked the consulate. It shows how dangerous a place Libya is today. There are groups that have advanced weapons, not under the control of the central authority. This is a very dangerous country, and the government needs to be supported and strengthened, to be able to take control of its territory, and to disarm all of these renegade groups. Perhaps that is what the president meant by saying that justice will be served. Those who perpetrated the attack must be brought to justice, but also, Libya needs to become not just a safer country but a country in which the government has control over all of its territory and all the people inside of it.

Controversy still surrounds what happened in Egypt. Mind you, there are still people camped out outside the embassy walls today in Cairo, and I suspect that President Obama felt it was better to act quietly rather than publicly, especially in an environment where the American public is asking: Why is the Egyptian government not only not condemning what happened there, but instead is calling for protests on Friday? This puts the administration in a difficult position. It doesn’t want to publicly criticize the government. I can only imagine that the White House and the State Department are quietly urging the Egyptian government to come out publicly on the right side of this issue. So I suspect that is why they are staying quiet for the time being. They would, no doubt, prefer to have a positive Egyptian message to react to rather than a negative one.

Is President Morsi caught in a bind between his own Muslim Brotherhood and the U.S. government?

Morsi is no longer the head of a political movement or even a political party. He is now the president of Egypt, and it is time for him to make the transition to being a national leader. He has acted responsibly in some cases: Egypt recently returned its ambassador to Israel quietly [and] Morsi went to Tehran and criticized the Syrian government for the way it behaving toward its own people. This is the time for Morsi to make the transition from opposition leader to being a national leader. I think he is in a strong position to say what needs to be said and not pander to anti-Americanism or any affronts to Islam.

Does he have to say something in the next day?

I think we are in unchartered waters right now. We now have an Islamist leader of Egypt. This is an unprecedented situation, and we are now seeing a leader who had moved from being a member of a banned organization to now leading a country. There is no grace period for when a leader takes power. You are in the driver’s seat, and you’re at the wheel now.

On Libya, how is it that these extremists had all these weapons and could attack the U.S. consulate so easily?

Libya has just gone through a violent upheaval in which its supreme leader [Muammar] Qaddafi was overthrown, in which weapons flowed into that country quite openly and quite freely. This is a country awash in weapons. This is what happens in civil wars, and this is what makes the situation after these wars end so dangerously.

We have to keep this in mind as we talk about arming opposition groups in other countries or watching opposition groups in other countries become armed. It’s a situation that remains in a number of countries in the Middle East where you have militia groups operating. Look at Lebanon today. You have Hezbollah, which is a political group that is heading the government while at the same time has its own independent militia with advanced weapons, and that has been the situation for a number of years now. One of the definitions of a state is that it has a monopoly on the use of force. Well, we are seeing in a number of places in the Middle East that that is not the case, and that is a recipe for violence and danger to people in the country.

Syria comes to mind because it an example of what happens when you are not sure who is going to win.

Yes, that is exactly right. And it shows that, in these kinds of situations, once a leader is toppled, the hard work in many ways is yet to be done. It is one thing to topple a leader; it is another thing to then secure the country. It is a situation we see in Iraq; it is a situation we see in Syria; it is a situation we see in Lebanon; it is a situation we see in Palestine; it is a situation we see in Yemen. This is endemic in the region right now.