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Much more to violence than outrage over film

IT'S a crisis likely to get much worse before it gets better.

The protests began in Egypt earlier this week. By Wednesday they had inflamed a diplomatic emergency in Libya and continued yesterday with the storming of the US Embassy in the Yemeni capital Sanaa.

Provoked by an obscure film called Innocence of Muslims that denigrates the Prophet Muhammad, few doubt the anger and riots will grow and spread across the Middle East and beyond after today's Friday prayers.

But just what does the crisis tell us about the prevailing conditions within the Arab world's new fledgling democracies, most of which are still in a process of transition?

What too of the damage done to diplomatic relations between Washington and these new governments?

And then there is the sensitive question of what lies behind the motives, individuals and timing of such a dangerous provocation?

Perhaps more than anything, this latest crisis has exposed a fundamental vulnerability in the political leadership of places such as Egypt, Tunisia and Libya in the wake of the 2011 Arab uprisings.

In Egypt's case the demonstration that engulfed the US Embassy in Cairo was led by a group of Salafist activists. For the Salafists this was a politically opportune moment, given their dissatisfaction with the success of their more moderate Islamist and secularist rivals.

It's probably fair to say the Salafists were using the pretext of the film to send out dual messages. The first was obviously anti-Americanism, of which there is no shortage in today's Egypt. Their second message, however, was to lay down a challenge to their rivals in the Muslim Brotherhood government of President Mohammed Morsi.

The pressure now on the Brotherhood and Mr Morsi is considerable. Faced with fuel shortages, rising food costs and a large number of young unemployed with high expectations for Egypt's economy, Mr Morsi's government has been forced to carefully weigh up its response.

It's a similar story of post- revolutionary powerbroking in Libya. Salafist demonstrators who stormed the US consulate in Benghazi at first glance appear to have been following the lead of their Cairo counterparts. Here too there was an anti-American component to the protests, matched by a challenge to Prime Minister Abdurrahim el Keib and the secularist parties which are the backbone of the new Libyan government.

The Libyan scenario differs, though, in that the consulate attack was augmented by a well-armed Islamic militia. For some time now, attacks on foreign offices in Benghazi have indicated a transnational ideology lies behind the motivation for such strikes and militant Islamist groups may be re-emerging in Libya's east.

In June, a bomb detonated at the front entrance of the US consulate in Benghazi. The attack followed a rocket-propelled grenade strike on offices of the International Committee of the Red Cross in the city in May.

In both cases, Libyan security officials said a group calling itself the Brigades of Imprisoned Omar Abdel Rahman was responsible.

Also known as the "Blind Sheikh", Rahman was the al Qaeda-linked leader of Gamaah al Islamiyah, an Egyptian militant group. Convicted in New York for his role in a 1993 plot to bomb several targets in the city, his imprisonment has long served as a call to arms in jihadist circles and many past threats and attacks have been linked to his case.

However, this week's Benghazi attack that led to the death of the American ambassador Christopher Stevens may well have been the work of another pro-al Qaeda group known as Ansar al Sharia in response to the death of senior al Qaeda figure Abu Yahya al Libi, a Libyan who was killed in a US drone strike in Pakistan in June.

There is much more to the violent response witnessed across Egypt, Libya, and Yemen these last few days than simple outrage at a film regarded as anti-Islam. The fact US relations with Cairo and Tripoli have been put under so much pressure is further evidence of the wider geopolitical machinations at play.

Only last week, Mr Morsi welcomed American business leaders as part of a US commitment to help revive Egypt's economy through debt relief and investment. While Washington is unlikely to backtrack on debt forgiveness, it's a pretty safe bet it will now press the Egyptian president for more assurances of his commitment to democratic rule and an even greater crackdown on radical Salafist elements. In Libya's case, its government desperately needs US and other western assistance to gain the skills needed to infiltrate the jihadist groups operating in Benghazi, gather intelligence, interdict militant operations and protect important facilities from similar attacks in the future.

For now, anger rages over the film Innocence of Muslims. But there is nothing innocent in the efforts of those jihadists determined to weaken the new progressive steps taking place across an Arab and Muslim world in the throes of a historic transition from authoritarian to democratic governance.

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