Vermont Public Radio comment for Friday September 21st,

INTRO : This morning commentator and veteran ABC News foreign correspondent Barrie Dunsmore explains that the current turmoil in the Middle East should come as no surprise. That’s because much of the region is still in the throes of revolution.

TEXT: If we look at the outcome of significant revolutions in modern history- American, French, Russian – it is obvious that political turmoil continued long after the rule of the kings or the tsar had been brought to an end.

For Americans, six years of fierce debate and political uncertainty passed between the end of the Revolutionary War and the implementation of the new U.S. Constitution. After beheading King Louis the XVI the French eventually made Napoleon Emperor and it would be decades before a democratic French Republic would become a reality. In Russia the overthrow of the Tsar was followed by five years of civil war ending with Lenin and his Bolsheviks turning Russia into a communist dictatorship.

These may be different times in terms of speed of communication – but in the human struggle for power not much has changed

Egypt, Libya and Tunisia overthrew dictators who had been in power for forty years - during which the United States supported or tolerated these dictators in the interests of stability and Arab oil. European colonial powers had controlled the Middle East in the decades after World War I. And in the three centuries before that, the region was subject to the harsh Turkish rulers of the Ottoman Empire. So throughout the centuries, in most of the Middle East there have been few if any opportunities for institutions of self- governance to develop - much less democratic ones.
But the one societal structure common throughout the Middle East that has survived the centuries is Islam. And I believe what we are seeing today in places like Egypt, Libya, Tunisia and Yemen is a battle of competing Islamic factions - between somewhat moderate Muslims and the often violent, ultra conservative Salafis.

Conditions vary in each Arab country. But in these still early days of the revolutions, the more moderate factions have emerged with the most popular support. That’s why the violent reaction to the highly offensive American film about the Prophet Mohammed isn’t just about injured religious sensibilities. More likely the film has been used as a pretext for extremist Salafis to stage violent protests to undermine the power of the moderates. If, for example, President Mohammed Morsi, who is a former leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, harshly suppressed Egyptian protesters, he risked being seen as an American lackey. If he allowed the threat to American and other Western Embassies to continue, he was in danger of losing not just U.S. economic aid, but the international investments that Egypt so desperately needs. Either way, the Salafis stood to make political gains.

These are times that need a steady hand in Washington. President Barack Obama cannot fail to demand protection for American diplomats. But the president must also recognize the huge challenges these shaky new Arab governments are being forced to cope with. After all, their alternatives could well be religious fanatics who want to return the Arab world to the 7th century.

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