Yemeni men shout anti-American slogans during a demonstration in Sanaa on September 17, 2012 calling for the expulsion of the US ambassador and against an anti-Islam film that has sparked violent demonstrations in the Muslim world. Photo: AFP
MENA (Middle East/North Africa) is on fire. The diffuse rage - even if manifested by a tiny minority - is distinctly anti-American. Protests in Cairo have reached Sanaa in Yemen and even Bangladesh. The administration of US President Barack Obama is perplexed beyond belief. There will be revenge. What's really going on?
It does not matter whether that infamous, crude, made-in-California anti-Islam and anti-Prophet Muhammad flick - actually financed/produced by an Egyptian Christian Copt and American protestants, instead of a non-existent Jewish real-estate developer - was just a pretext that led to the killing of the US ambassador in Benghazi and the protests in Cairo and beyond. Let's try to identify the consequences.
The militia ballet
The strategic target of the Salafi-jihadis who killed the US ambassador in Benghazi was to torpedo the (already shaky) Obama-Muslim Brotherhood alliance.
Imagine if that had happened in Syria - or with a visiting US diplomat to Iran, for example; Pentagon-based revenge already would be in effect. US consulates were never attacked when Colonel Muammar Gaddafi was in power in Libya; it happened under the watch of a "NATO rebel" regime fully sponsored by Washington.
Libya is now militia hell - from neighborhood-watch outfits to mini-armies. They won't disarm. They refuse to be part of government security forces because their logic is tribal. They're fighting one another. No weak central government in car-bomb-infested Tripoli will rein them in.
Another way to put it is that "liberated" Libya is now warlord country. Home of vendettas in the desert and tribal pogroms against other tribes - and even whole towns.
The Salafi-jihadis - with whom Washington, London and Paris were unashamedly in bed during their humanitarian bombing campaign - are based in Cyrenaica, eastern Libya. Some have come from Iraq. Some are shuttling back and forth to and from Syria, aiming to destroy yet one more secular Arab republic.
They include the heavily armed gang that attacked the US consulate - the self-described Imprisoned Omar Abdul Rahman Brigades, which surfaced only four months ago. Three months ago, hundreds of AK-47-equipped Salafi-jihadis held Benghazi hostage demanding sharia law.
The (disintegrated) police and army of "liberated" Libya could not possibly face them down. Local tribes don't care. Salafi-jihadis have been attacking Sufi mosques and tombs; Sufi Islam is infinitely more moderate - and intellectually sophisticated - compared with medieval Wahhabism.
The training camps are near Derna - which has a history of being a top source of al-Qaeda-style jihadis, especially active in occupied Iraq. This does not mean all the Salafi-jihadis are affiliated with al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM); it's a much more local Libyan affair.
Anyway, by now Derna must be under watch, millimeter by millimeter, by Obama's drones. Hellfire missiles will be raining down over Derna in no time. There will be collateral damage. No one will shed a tear.
As much as Salafi-jihadis are a minority in Libya, they are a highly motivated, trained and weaponized minority. They won't go down quietly. They will react if the Obama administration goes for all-out droning and a Hellfire feast; they will attack the weak central government in Tripoli. Somalization looms.
It's Hellfire time
Egypt is a much tougher, nuanced proposition - because it's the model for the uneasy Washington-Muslim Brotherhood (MB) love affair, with the US betting on moderate Islamists as provisional substitutes for friendly dictators of the Hosni Mubarak kind. A complicating factor is that Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi is in direct competition with local Salafis - who got 25% in the congressional elections. So the MB won't be very forceful in denouncing them - even though they are hated by the Salafis.
There's virtually nothing the Obama administration can do to pressure Morsi. He has been extremely cunning - playing the US, the House of Saud and Qatar against one another. Whatever happens, the brief honeymoon between the Obama administration and the MB is destined to sour. The only regional actor to savor this will be Israel - which detested the honeymoon in the first place.
The Obama administration was forced into this dead-end because - foolishly, one might stress - it has been playing the sectarian card, aligning itself with the medieval House of Saud and cunning mini-superpower Qatar, key protector of the MB, but also with all sorts of Salafi-jihadism, especially in Syria. All this to ultimately defeat the self-described "axis of resistance" - Iran-Syria-Hezbollah - whatever it takes. It takes facing repeated instances of blowback all across MENA and beyond.
So what is Obama to do? The cosmically mediocre Mitt Romney accused him of being weak in the face of "terra-rists", but Romney is a foreign-policy pigmy, whose neocon-instilled agenda boils down to treating both Russia and China as enemies and bombing Iran. The Republican Party simply has no clue of what's going on in MENA.
Not that Obama has much to rely on. The old, cozy, dictator-led order has collapsed after Tunisia and Egypt. Washington is being kicked out of Iraq. Obama himself cannot position Egypt as an ally or a threat. What's left is to drone - somebody, anybody - to death. Send the marines. Deploy some warships. Display some military muscle. And hope for the best.
The last thing Obama needs now is to gloat over his success in finishing off al-Qaeda, or to get embroiled in a messy Arab Spring debate. If, as stellar pollster Nate Silver attests, he has an 80% chance of winning re-election, all he has to do is to calculate each and every move to prevent any serious controversy. After November, it's another story. The US may even develop a sound, coherent MENA policy.
By Pepe Escobar
Pepe Escobar is the author of Globalistan: How the Globalized World is Dissolving into Liquid War (Nimble Books, 2007) and Red Zone Blues: A Snapshot of Baghdad During the Surge. His new book, just out, is Obama Does Globalistan (Nimble Books, 2009). He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The article was published on Asia Times Online on September 15, 2012. The opinions expressed are his own.