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In region where US policy is dynamite, film is detonator

This week's protests are not really about a foolish film; they are the fruit of long-running frustrations with a whole range of US policies.

Three distinct but connected dynamics are driving the current wave of anger targeting US embassies across the Arab world. But neither the US political class nor its media has much grasp of those dynamics, leaving them floundering for explanations and responses for the sometimes deadly drama symbolically reenacted across the Muslim world over the past week.

On Sunday, The New York Times, America's newspaper of record, suggested the upheaval "presents questions about central tenets of [President Obama's] Middle East policy: Did he do enough during the Arab Spring to help the transition to democracy from autocracy? Has he drawn a hard enough line against Islamic extremists?"

White House Press Secretary Jay Carney insists that the surge of Arab anger is simply a "response to a film that we have judged to be reprehensible and disgusting," and "is in no way directed towards US policies".

But Republican vice-presidential nominee Paul Ryan blamed the protests on "mixed signals" from the White House, which had retreated from the "moral clarity and firmness of purpose" of the Bush era and had failed to sufficiently support Israel.

There's nothing new about Americans not "getting" the Middle East. Understanding last week's events requires dispensing with the prism of US interests and ideological paradigms for measuring the complex political dynamics of a changing Arab world, and also a willingness to understand the US role in the Middle East as others see and experience it, rather than on the basis of the stories it tells itself. On both counts, the US political class and media establishment fall short.

The protest wave was no spontaneous upsurge, sparked by thousands of people simultaneously stumbling upon a California-made YouTube trailer for a politically pornographic video insulting Islam. It required media dissemination and political agitation to turn the Innocence of Muslims into tinder for a firestorm of protest, and that work was initially undertaken by media and organisations affiliated with the Salafist political trend. Most Egyptians learned of the clip on TV, with the Salafist-oriented station Al Nas taking the lead in broadcasting.

Their purpose, shared later by others such as Hizbollah's Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, was entirely opportunistic, making Arab publics aware of an obscure film in order to harness for their own political ends the genuine popular outrage it was sure to provoke.

Salafists have emerged as the wildcard of Arab democratisation, competing for political influence and electoral power with the more moderate Islamists of the Muslim Brotherhood by styling themselves the "true" defenders of the faith. Mainstream Islamists in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya have sought a pragmatic relationship with the West in order to realise their economic and development goals.

Playing up an issue like the hideous California propaganda film allows the Salafists to start fires that put more moderate forces in an uncomfortable position, disrupting efforts to create a stable relationship with the West, and strengthening the appeal of the Salafist current.

It's an indigenous political dynamic over which the US has little influence; to suggest, as the New York Times does, that it may derive from the Obama administration not taking a tough enough line against political Islam is as deluded as it is dangerous.

Were it not for preexisting and deeply felt outrage over US invasions of Muslim countries, support for Israel and contempt for the Palestinians, as well as Washington's backing of friendly Arab despots, its drone strikes and more, this film would be like a detonator without dynamite. Instead, despite the stories White House press officers tells Americans, it's in fact precisely because of deep and abiding animosity towards US policy that provocations such as the Islam-bashing film can be used to do such damage.

The reason for the White House's discomfort isn't hard to see: President Obama had promised in his 2009 Cairo speech to inaugurate a "new beginning" in the troubled US-Arab relationship. And the overwhelming consensus in the Arab world is that he failed to deliver. He doubled down on the war in Afghanistan, made assassination-by-drone the signature of his national-security approach, kept Guantanamo open and failed in his promise to restrain Israel and deliver justice for the Palestinians.

His promised diplomacy with Iran has given way to a regime of escalating sanctions and threats of war; and his response to the democratic rebellions in the Arab world has been ambivalence. Despite Obama's promises, recent opinion surveys find US standing in the region slightly worse than it was at the end of the Bush administration. If there have been, as Mr Ryan suggests, "mixed messages" from the Obama administration, those were the promises of change not felt on the ground.

There is another element that explains last week's events, particularly the murder of the US ambassador and three staffers at the consulate in Benghazi. And that's the weakness of the post-dictatorship political and security order. The extent of authority of Egypt's president, Mohammed Morsi, remains uncertain, while he's surrounded by remnants of the Mubarak regime, liberal and secular parties, and the Salafists, all of which desire to see him fail.

In Libya, by contrast, the state as a guarantor of security barely exists a year after the fall of Muammar Qaddafi. Power on the streets remains in the hands of dozens of militias guided by their own competing agendas and interests.

The Arab world is in the early stages of an epochal transformation, with the assertiveness of newly empowered Arab publics and the ebbing of US influence rendering redundant the assumptions of the past half-century. The symbolic venting at US embassies over the past week is but an early aside in an uncomfortable conversation that is only just getting started.

Tony Karon is an analyst based in New York

On Twitter: @TonyKaron

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