Foreign Policy Friday Puzzler

Friday Puzzler: Why Did the Governments in Egypt and Libya Respond So Differently to the Embassy Attacks?

By Barbara F. Walter

Barack Obama and Hilary Clinton honor those killed in the Benghazi attack on September 11, 2012. US State Department Photo.

On September 11, 2012, US embassies in Egypt and Libya were attacked. While the world watched videos of youths scaling embassy walls and burning American flags, the governments of Egypt and Libya chose to respond in quite different ways. The first response of the govenrment of Egypt, led by President Mohamed Morsi, was to denounce the anti-Muslim film produced in the United States and call for the United States to prosecute the filmmaker. In contrast, the first response of the government of Libya, led by the General National Council, was to unequivacably condemn the attackers of the embassy.

The puzzle is this: why did the governments react in such different ways?

Answers to our last Puzzler:

Our last puzzler asked why the United States bothers with presidential debates, given that they have little effect on elections’ outcomes. Reader kerokan suggested that debates persist because incompetent candidates likely to perform poorly cannot back out of them because declining to debate would be an even stronger signal of their low quality; competent candidates see the debates as an opportunity to demonstrate their high quality. Roderick focused on the legitimizing effect of the debates, arguing they “give a form and appearance of legitimacy to democratic governance.”

5 Comments

  • I’ll take a crack at it, based purely on speculation. The Egyptian president is new, inexperienced in foreign affairs, and focused on domestic politics. His concerns were about the domestic implications of the Internet video, losing control of the streets, seeing Salafi Islamists taking advantage of any hesitation to claim that he’s not really a proper Muslim after all. After Obama called him on the phone, presumably highlighting the possible international consequences of his decisions, he quickly changed his position, denounced the assault on the embassy as well as the video, and canceled the further demonstrations that he had just encouraged. As far as I know, Egypt has been relatively quiet ever since, but it will be interesting to see if he pays for this in terms of domestic politics.

    The Libyan leaders may not have much more experience in foreign policy, but as a consequence of their civil war, semi-intervention, and lack of governing institutions, they must be more aware of their internal weaknesses and their dependence on foreign powers. In addition, the fellow who was serving briefly as prime minister was a former engineering professor from the Rochester Institute of Technology, so presumably a bit more conscious of the Americans and of their way of doing things. Also, the US ambassador who died was something of a hero in Libya since he had entered eastern Libya clandestinely during the civil war to act as US liaison to the rebel council. The United States appears to be much more popular in Libya than in Egypt (perhaps, in part, because the long-term relationship between the US and Qadhafi was one of hostility). In addition to all that, many Libyans are probably getting fed up with all the militias and lawlessness.

  • I was to write a response here, but it goes pretty much as Scott’s reply above.

    I would just add that, the fact that the Libyan government has come to place with the aid of a NATO intervention, makes them much more careful on how to engage with the US and the West as a whole. The highlight here is the distance between how the government feels it can engage with the US, and how the people (or at least part of the people, as we seen on the demonstrations) feels that they can do the same.

  • @Scott,
    President Morsi got his Ph.D. from USC and briefly taught at CSU Northridge, so he presumably is familiar with American society and has some idea about how US government works.

    This is an assumption though; notably, both the Shah’s and early IRI regimes in Iran employed advisors who were educated abroad, but who seemed to completely misunderstand American politics and foreign policy practices.

  • […] Last week we asked why the governments of Libya and Egypt reacted so differently to the attacks on US embassies in their respective countries. Commenter Scott Monje suggested that the US “appears to be much more popular in Libya than in Egypt,” encouraging the Libyan government to quickly apologize for the attack. Daniel Rio Tinto added that the Libyan government was more dependent on the US because it came to power “with the aid of NATO intervention” which made them “much more careful on how to engage with the US and the West as a whole.” Both are true. The real question, however, is why the US enjoys greater popularity in Tripoli than Cairo despite the substantial aid both countries receive from the US. I believe the answer has more to do with domestic politics than anything the US does or does not do. […]

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