WASHINGTON — The cascade of anti-American protests in the Middle East this week is a jolting reminder to the White House of a dangerous dimension of the "Arab Spring" revolutions: Freedom for long-suppressed Islamist groups that weak elected governments can't manage and that America can't control.
Violence flared again Thursday when hundreds of protesters attacked the U.S. Embassy in Yemen, Egyptian crowds scuffled with police firing tear gas, and demonstrations erupted in Morocco, Sudan and Tunisia.
Egypt's newly installed Islamist government did little to stop protesters who swarmed over the walls of the U.S. Embassy in Cairo on Tuesday. President Mohammed Morsi annoyed the White House when he limited his initial comments to condemning a video that mocks the prophet Mohammed and that supposedly incited the riots. Thursday, after speaking to President Barack Obama on the phone, Morsi finally condemned the attack on the embassy.
"It is going to be a real challenge figuring out how to deal with Islamist movements that are based on popular will, in a region where America is inherently unpopular," said James Jeffrey, a former U.S. ambassador to Iraq and Turkey.
The unrest could affect U.S. policy toward Syria.
The White House has refused to send weapons to the Syrian rebels, fearful that some fighters have ties to al-Qaida or other militant groups. Some critics argue the opposite, saying Washington should back the opposition to guard against extremists from taking control. The events this week provide ammunition to both sides.
Administration officials were encouraged in July when Libyan voters denied even a seat in parliament to the ultra-conservative Salafis, a religious movement. But Libya's militias, some composed of Salafis, are trying to exploit distrust of the West to build support. In recent months, militants have bombed the offices of the International Committee of the Red Cross, desecrated British World War II graves and tossed a small bomb at the consulate in Benghazi that was attacked Tuesday.
Militants are "grasping at foreign causes that they believe will excite Libyans' emotions," according to Frederic Wehrey, a senior associate in the Middle East program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.