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Moments of Truth in Libya and Egypt

I awoke this morning to the horrifying news of the death of U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other consular officials during a mob attack on the consulate in Benghazi, which followed yesterday's storming of the embassy in Cairo. The embassy riots over an absurd, obscure anti-Islam movie are more "Danish Cartoons" than "Iranian Hostage Crisis" and were following a depressingly familiar script until the deaths in Libya. But now the stakes are far higher.

It would be a tragic mistake to allow the images from Cairo and Benghazi to undermine American support for the changes in the Arab world. The protesters in Cairo and Benghazi are no more the true face of the Arab uprisings than al Qaeda was the face of Islam after 9/11. We should not allow the actions of a radical fringe to define our views of an entire group. The aspirations for democratic change of many millions of Arab citizens must not be delegitimated by the violent acts of a small group of radicals.  

But the response to the eruption by empowered publics, elected leaders and influential voices across political society -- including, especially, Islamists -- really does matter. Authoritarian regimes in the past frequently allowed, or even encouraged, such violent eruptions over these issues. Islamist movements in perennial opposition leaped at the chance to score political points while taking no responsibility for what followed. Today will be a pivotal moment in the urgent debates about how such movements will respond to political power and a stake in the political system. Libya's leaders thus far look to be passing that test. Egypt's do not.   

Libya was the location of the greater horror, with the death of Stevens and his consular staffers. But across the Libyan political spectrum there has been an immediate rush of condemnation of the attacks and deep empathy with the American victims. Mohammed al-Magariaf, president of Libya's National Council, quickly declared that "in the strongest possible words, in all languages, we condemn, reject, and denounce what happened in Benghazi yesterday in the assault on the US Consulate." Deputy Prime Minister Mustafa Abu Shagur said "I condemn these barbaric acts in the strongest possible terms. This is an attack on America, Libya and free people everywhere." Prime Minister Abd al-Rahim al-Keib offered similar strong condemnation. Libyan officials have promised to bring those responsible for the killings to justice. Libyans online have been similarly outraged and appalled. My Twitter timeline has filled with angry and outraged comments from Libyans denouncing the attacks and expressing sympathy and support for the dead Americans. Numerous protests have been announced for the next few days against the attackers.    

In short, the response from Libya suggests a broad national rejection at both the governmental and societal level of the anti-American agitation. The leaders have said the right things and have done their part to quickly pre-empt a spiral of conflict and recrimination between Americans and Libyans. And the United States has in turn responded with a calm but firm response which unequivocally condemned the attacks but committed to continuing to cooperate with Libyans against a common challenge. And, as President Obama and Secretary of State Clinton both emphasized repeatedly in their remarks today, many Libyans came to the defense of the Americans at the consulate -- exactly the right move, isolating and marginalizing the violent attackers rather than exaggerating and empowering their claims. And they will need it, as the attacks also clearly demonstrate Libya's ongoing problems of state capacity -- lack of adequate capability to ensure security, to disarm militias, or to police such outbursts. 

In Egypt, on the other hand, President Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood has been notably invisible. To this point, we have heard no statements from Egyptian government officials condemning the assault on the embassy, no expressions of concern or sympathy, no suggestion of any fault on their own side. The Muslim Brotherhood had previously been planning rallies against the notorious film, and at the time of this writing has not canceled them. Even when they finally issued a statement condemning the violence in Libya, they were not forthcoming on Cairo. They seem far more concerned at the moment with their domestic political interest in protecting their right flank against Salafi outbidding than with behaving like the governing party of a state. 

Morsi and the Brotherhood do not seem to understand, or perhaps they simply do not care, how important their public stance is today in defining their image. The United States has taken real risks by engaging with the Brotherhood, pushing for democratic change despite their likely victory in fair elections, and insisting that the Egyptian military allow the completion of the transition after Morsi's victory. That was necessary to have any hope of genuine democratic change in Egypt, and the right position to take. But I suspect that many in Washington will feel that they have been repaid with Morsi's silence after the breach of the embassy wall which could well have resulted in the same kind of tragedy as in Benghazi. And that will have enduring effects on the nature and extent of American support for Egypt's transition -- how much harder is it going to be to get debt relief through congress now? It is quite telling that Obama said nothing about Egypt in his remarks about the deaths in Benghazi. 

The response to the attacks by Libyans and Egyptians is in many ways more important than the attacks themselves, and certainly more important than the absurd film. President Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood are facing a critical test right now ... whether or not they realize its importance. 

KHALED DESOUKI/AFP/GettyImages

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