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After Benghazi: Don't Let Jihadist Violence Undo The Gains Of Arab Spring

Essay: The fury of fundamentalist Muslims should not obscure efforts to consolidate democracy.

Article illustrative image Partner logo Martyr Square In Tripoli In February

CAIRO - Is the Arab Spring turning into a "jihadi winter"? More than a year and a half after the beginning of the wave of revolutions that toppled the regions' dictators, one after another, from Tunis to Tripoli to Cairo, the meteoric rise of Islamist extremists in the region is a real source of anxiety

At first glance, Tuesday night's attacks against American embassies in Cairo and Benghazi look like part of a cycle of violence perpetrated by fundamentalist groups preaching a radical Islam.

Since an attack last year on a local television station that broadcast the film Persepolis, which briefly shows God as an old man, Islamists in Tunisia have waged a campaign against artists, against women, and recently against a bar in the town of Sidi Bouzid that was selling alcohol. In Libya, mausoleums of the Sufi community, whom Islamists consider heretics, were violently attacked with heavy excavators. 

In Cairo, a cultural center recently found itself a target of Islamists, who accused it of promoting "Satanic" culture after the center hosted a rock concert where some audience members wore black t-shirts or crosses.

This time, the catalyst of a new explosion of anger is a low-budget film produced in the United States called "The Innocence of Muslims," which describes Islam as a "cancer."

Just a fraction

But before we conclude that the Arab world's dream of democracy is dead, we must distinguish between the violence of the grenade-launcher attack yesterday against the American consulate in Benghazi, Libya-- in which four diplomats, including the ambassador, lost their lives-- and the anti-American demonstration at the same time in Cairo.

Among the 2000 or so protestors who gathered in front of the U.S. embassy in Cairo -- a tiny number in a nation of 80 million people -- were Islamists, but some of them were also soccer "ultras," always ready to start trouble during demonstrations. This is a rather small group compared to the deluge of Internet appeals beforehand by a fundamentalist sheikh, urging people to denounce the film.

The protestors in front of the American embassy in Egypt included the Muslim Brotherhood, which has strongly condemned the film, produced by Egyptian Copts living in the United States. But it also emphasized the importance of unity among Muslims and Christians in Egypt, "in the face of attempts to stir up conflict."

These virulent reactions in the name of Islam, to a film as reprehensible as the hate it has aroused, must not obscure the efforts of Egyptian society to build a true democracy. Not a week passes in Cairo without peaceful gatherings, including the much less publicized one of Egyptian Christians that also took place Tuesday night, in Tahrir Square to denounce the film.

If we do not take these civic actions into account -- human chains demanding an anti-Islamic Constitution, women's demonstrations against sexual harassment, meetings of new liberal political parties-- we run the risk of giving free publicity to the most radical voices.


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