By Meghan L. O'Sullivan
— As the violent anti-American protests in the Muslim world subside, those in the region and in the United States are wondering whether the upheaval will have a permanent effect.
Although by no means inevitable, these events could have a silver lining. If they spur leaders in North Africa to reassess their economic and security policies — or if they prod America to lean toward rather than away from North Africa — the region could end up being better off than it was before it erupted on Sept. 11, 2012.
There is always the possibility that the protests and violence, which were triggered in part by outrage over the video "The Innocence of Muslims," will soon be forgotten. The violence surrounding the publication of cartoons of the Prophet Mohammad in a Danish newspaper in 2006 were shocking, too, but few would argue they were a turning point. Those protests, however, occurred under the old status quo of the Arab world, a very different context from the volatile, uncertain and in some ways more hopeful situation that has unfolded in the past 18 months.
One way in which the recent upheaval might have a lasting effect is on how freedom of speech is (or isn't) respected in the new Middle East. Last week we witnessed a serious exchange of views on the subject among world leaders at the United Nations. President Barack Obama sought to explain to the world why Americans hold so dear the right to state even the harshest of opinions; the presidents of Egypt and Yemen presented very different views on the limits of expression.
In the past, such contrasts might have simply underscored the significant cultural differences between the Arab world and the U.S. This time, the conversation roughly coincides with efforts to write new constitutions in Egypt, Libya and Tunisia. It is possible that the internal debates surrounding civil liberties in those countries will have greater sophistication after a real-world test of society's limits. Unfortunately, it is also likely that advocates of more "Western" notions of free speech will be hampered by association with the offensive video.
More hopefully, the events of the past two weeks — in exposing weaknesses of the post-revolutionary governments — could force leaders to confront realities they and the international community have heretofore been happy to play down. Libya, for example, seems newly inclined to address its biggest problem: pervasive lawlessness and the proliferation of violent militias.
After tens of thousands of Libyans turned out Sept. 22 in Benghazi to protest against the attacks that killed U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens and his three colleagues, the president of Libya's National Assembly, Mohammed Magarief, ordered the disbanding of all militias not sanctioned by the government. The army gave the groups a 48-hour deadline to disarm and to evacuate compounds and public buildings.
Although this was an important and bold step, it isn't a comprehensive solution to Libya's security challenges. Since Moammar Gadhafi's demise, the Libyan government has acknowledged that it is unable to control its entire territory, and militias have operated with impunity across much of the country. At the same time, the government rejected the idea of allowing foreign troops help keep the peace, or that it needed substantial help from the international community in stabilizing the country.
The tragedy in Benghazi underscored that Libya's insecurity isn't just a problem for Libyans, but for its neighbors and the rest of the world. The best outcome will be if Libyans use this moment to ask for more robust security assistance to build a competent national army, track down chemical weapons left over from the Gadhafi era and tamp down reluctant militias. This may not necessarily take the form of a peacekeeping force, but embedded trainers from friendly countries could help bolster the Libyan army's capabilities during a period of vulnerability.
Moreover, Libya might ask the international community for help in integrating members of disbanded militia into civilian life or the nascent army — the U.S. has some experience, albeit of limited success, in such efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan.
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.
The U.S. can't easily solve the unemployment problem in the Arab world or close the yawning gap between the skills of educated Arabs and the skills actually needed by employers. Nor can it provide the social justice — of which economics is only a part — that Arabs are looking to their new governments to deliver. But the U.S. can help.
First, it can consistently stand up for the American principles that are admired globally: political and economic liberty. It can also infuse the Middle East with economic advice, technical assistance, private-sector help and educational partnering. These are the U.S.'s comparative advantages. To some extent, this is already under way. The new $60 million Egyptian Enterprise Fund, which will provide support for small- and medium-sized Egyptian businesses, is a good start. So was a trip by more than 100 U.S. businessmen last month arranged by the embassy in Cairo.
But such programs need to occur on a larger scale that holds some prospect of tipping the wobbly trajectory of today to a definitively positive slope. Giving American business significant incentives to invest in Egypt, providing Egyptian products easy access to the U.S. marketplace, and offering significant aid and expertise contingent on policy reforms should be pillars of a strategy seeking to boost long-term Egyptian prospects.
Doing far more to help these new democracies thrive isn't just in the interests of Arabs, who are deserving of a better future, but also of the U.S., which needs better partners in this part of the world.
Meghan L. O'Sullivan, a professor at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government and former deputy national security adviser in the George W. Bush administration, is a Bloomberg View columnist.