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October 4, 2012

Muslim protests could have a silver lining

(Continued)

Although perhaps much harder to envision, it is possible that the anti-American protests in Egypt, too, will constitute a turning point. President Mohammed Morsi's slow but eventual condemnation of the attacks against the U.S. Embassy in Cairo could be the first stage in driving a wedge between his Muslim Brotherhood and the more extremist Salafi groups. Morsi's initial reluctance to speak against the violence in part reflected his reluctance to position himself against more extremist elements, and that he overcame it is very significant.

This single instance of Morsi's condemning anti-Americanism might not prove he is looking for more moderate political partners. But he has a bigger hurdle coming soon: negotiating a $4.8 billion loan with the International Monetary Fund. Not only will the loan come with stringent conditions on government spending that are opposed by many politicians, but some Salafis believe that paying interest to a non-Islamic entity such as the IMF is a violation of religious principles. Morsi, and Egypt, desperately needs the loan, and building on his denouncement of the protests, he might find himself forced to break publicly with his most conservative allies.

Although shifts in Libyan or Egyptian politics would be significant, a more important legacy of the violence will be how it affects U.S. commitment to the Middle East. Understandably, the first reaction of many Americans was to throw their hands up in dismay, and to ask why we should continue to spend money and political capital on a part of the world that is so clearly dysfunctional and anti-American.

This is exactly the wrong response. The problem isn't that the U.S. has done too much for these countries in transition; it is that the U.S. hasn't yet done enough. A fear of seeming heavy-handed has led us to be nearly hands-off. Closer engagement doesn't mean smothering governments that want and need to keep their political distance from Washington in order to maintain public support, nor does it entail a greater military presence. But it does mean a more systematic strategy toward the region, one that recognizes the tentative nature of every achievement made since the Arab revolutions began and seeks to bolster the fortunes of those looking to build moderate, economically open societies — even if they have conservative and Islamic leanings.

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