ONJune 4, 2009 Barack Obama gave a landmark speech in Cairo.
He told his audience: "I have come here to seek a new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world; one based upon mutual interest and mutual respect; and one based upon the truth that America and Islam are not exclusive, and need not be in competition."
Today that sentiment appears to have been trampled into the sands of North Africa and the Middle East in the wake of last week's deadly attack on the US consulate in Benghazi. Anti-American protests have spread across the region like wildfire, stoked by the publication of an offensive Islamophobic video, created in Los Angeles.
It would be easy to conclude that the US President's policy of engagement was an abject failure and the Americans should withdraw their representatives from the area, possibly after inflicting a brutal reprisal. That would be foolish.
Both the anti-American protests and the attack that killed US Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three consular staff in Benghazi are partly the result of last year's Arab Spring, which enabled Islamist groups to emerge into the political daylight by removing the brutal dictatorships that once suppressed them. But it is important to remember that the impetus for that liberation movement was not primarily religious fundamentalism but the struggle against poverty and repression. These are causes that the US and its allies ought to support.
The crowds taking to the streets and burning the Stars and Stripes have been far smaller than those that occupied the streets and squares across the Arab world last year. The very last thing the world needs is a US strike against Islamist militants in Libya that risks killing civilians, like the women who perished in a Nato air strike in Afghanistan at the weekend.
Liberation movements and fragile post-revolutionary governments around the Mediterranean need help to built robust institutions. Sadly, diplomacy in such countries has always been a risky occupation. US missions need proper protection without turning them into the equivalent of Fort Knox. Diplomats must be free to engage with local people if they hope to engage with them. As for the protests, it is important to set them against the dire poverty, unemployment and illiteracy that continue to plague these countries despite the high hopes generated by the stirring events of last year.
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