New York - There is a new tyrant in the Arab region, which is going through a troubled transitional phase in the wake of the revolutions of change that have toppled the dictators: It is the unruly mobs that are threatening the course of democracy and imposing dangerous tendencies on the future of the Arabs, and their relations with both West and East. Such mobs, which appear most of the time to form spontaneously out of strong emotion, find themselves automatically at the service of the agenda of hatred and resentment, set up by the forces of extremism. If such a new tyrant were to move forward in imposing its vision on the Arab region without facing civil confrontation from other segments of the societies of change, it will be able to hijack the future of relations within society and with the world abroad. At the security level, such crowds must be subjected to law and order. At the political level, a campaign to raise awareness must be undertaken that would record the evils of this new tyrant and its impact on the regional order, which is in the process of being formed. What the tyrants of these unruly mobs, which have come out in resentment of the United States because of a foul and hateful film aimed at provoking such reactions in the first place, have done is make the Arab revolutions fall into a pit of primitivism, while the world had been praising a qualitative shift in Arab history. And with the same extent of harm to the revolutions of change, the global reaction to this new tyrant has come in the form of fear from the course of change, to the extent of preferring traditional tyrants to this new tyrant, particularly in Syria. Thus those unruly mobs have provided a means of salvation for the regime in Damascus and a lifeline for Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad. This is how the spontaneous movements of crowds have served tyranny on Arab soil, while they distracted themselves - or were being distracted - with a film that was made precisely in order to portray them as hate-filled mobs. This does not spare the United States from similar challenges if it were to fall into the trap of choosing between traditional tyrants and these new tyrants.
President Barack Obama - who it now increasingly seems will be the US President for the next four years - bears special responsibility towards the Syrian people, of whom nearly thirty thousand have fallen victim since they rose up demanding reform and freedom. The primary requirement of moral and political leadership is not to allow traditional tyrants to take a sigh of relief with the coming of the tyrants of rabble-rousing to save them from being held to account and to provide them with a lifeline to salvation. President Barack Obama is in the eye of the storm in Syria, as far as it may be from the scene of the elections. It represents a thorn in his side at a time when it is necessary for him to lead - from the front or from behind. Otherwise, he will come to regret his inaction. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was right when she pledged that America would not submit to "the tyranny of a mob" and would not back down before it. The fact of the matter is that the sensible Arab masses must in turn make it clear to these unruly mobs that they are marginal and unacceptable, and have no right to invade the protest scene. Of course, the right to demonstrate, assemble and express one's opinion and will is an essential one in the democratic awakening in the Arab region, and it is everyone's right without exception. Yet this does not give anyone the right to monopolize it, nor does it give them the right to kill people or attack embassies. If overwhelming anger at an insult is appropriate or justified, making light of the state, of the law and of relations between countries represents aggression against others and disdain for the prerogatives of democracy.
The issue of the limits on the right to freely express one's opinion in Western societies is certainly a controversial one, and in fact often represents a hypocritical double standard. Yes, there are limits and there are laws that forbid jeopardizing national security and restrain freedom of expression, and even prosecute those who violate them. There is an urgent need in the United States and in European societies to understand the impact of insulting Prophet Muhammad (Peace Be Upon Him) among Muslims. These are red lines that Western leaderships should understand and take seriously. This is not simply a matter of dialogue of religions or of the right to worship. It is a matter of national security. Moreover, there are several precedents of laws that were enacted temporarily until new legislation could be passed, such as in the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks. This is an issue it has become urgent for decision-makers to look into because it really does concern national security. Moreover, there are in the United States recognized taboos, such as against the use of anti-Semitic terms when talking about Jews. It would have been preferable not to cling so absolutely to the right to free speech when dealing with the film "Innocence of Muslims". Behind this film, as it is appearing day after day, stand veiled malice, intentional provocation and individuals with a history of breaking the law. It would have been preferable to immediately begin investigating who was behind the obscenity in the "Innocence" film. Indeed, this would not take away from the right to free speech, but would rather protect it from those who would abuse this principle for personal ends and in order to provoke.
Repercussions in the coming phase are important and must carefully be paid heed to. Yes, Egyptian President Mohammed Mursi was mistaken in his early reactions to the storming of the American Embassy in Cairo by unruly mobs. And yes, Americans have the right to be surprised, especially as the Obama Administration has made sure to support the Muslim Brotherhood, both in Egypt and outside, just as it has rushed to embrace the rise of Islamists to power, and has enthusiastically welcomed Mursi reaching the presidency. It would have been preferable for the Egyptian President to act decisively with such unruly mobs, instead of overanalyzing whether it would have been better to go easy on them, out of fear that they might react against him and draw along extremist forces such as Salafist and other groups. The Obama Administration perhaps felt that it has been tricked, especially since it sees itself as a near-ally of moderate Islam or Islamism as represented at this juncture by the Muslim Brotherhood - in its opinion - in the face of extremist Islam, as represented by the Salafists and others. President Obama has rushed to take away Egypt's attribute of "ally", perhaps because the new relationship of alliance with the Muslim Brotherhood has not yet been tested. The fact of the matter is that we do not really know the extent to which the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafists are in understanding or in confrontation.
Which of the two is besieging the other? To what extent are there differences between them when it comes to the constitution required for the country or to the true relationship with the United States and the West? We thus in reality do not know whether what is referred to as Islamism, which carries plans and a vision for leading post-revolutionary countries and societies, carries plans and a vision that are democratic or religious. The mistake that must be avoided is that of rushing to apply what Libya is witnessing over what is happening in Yemen, Egypt or Syria. Every experience has its own particularities on the road to change in the Arab region. The armed opposition in Syria is committing mistakes, and it has been infiltrated by Salafists and Jihadists of various backgrounds. This is true. It is also true that violations, some of which fall under the category of crimes against humanity, have been committed by members of the armed opposition. Yet this does not negate - and should not divert the attention from - the fact that the regime in Damascus is accused of having committed even greater crimes, when the duty of any government should be to protect its people, not to commit crimes against humanity with its people. It is unacceptable to overlook this reality merely because a new element has entered the scene with similar abuses on a smaller scale. Both sides must be held to account.
As for those who say that it would be better to cling to yesterday's tyrant, out of fear of what the alternative might be, they are nevertheless still clinging to a tyrant. That is the stance taken by Russia, China, Iran and Hezbollah regarding the survival of the regime in Syria, regardless of differences in the intentions and goals they hold for standing alongside Bashar Al-Assad. The repulsion of Americans at the revolutions of the Arab awakening due to the appearance of unruly mobs is no justification for burying one's head in the sand when it comes to Iran and Syria, or to China and Russia, who stand behind them. It is a battle of long-term strategic interests, the key to which is now in Syria.
Richard Cohen wrote in the Washington Post that every US President has had something to regret in an issue concerning foreign policy, saying that Syria would be President Obama's regret. The reason for this is that Obama has become known as having chosen to lead from behind instead of taking the initiative in terms of leadership. Indeed, he is the one who, at the end of the day, holds the keys to imposing a no-fly zone or safe corridors at the Turkish-Syria border. He is the one who has not said yes to such a choice, although it would not come at the cost of the United States carrying out direct intervention, but rather would give Turkey the green light to intervene, with some assistance from the North Atlantic Alliance (NATO).
Will the US President allow his legacy to bear the headline of having kept Bashar Al-Assad in power? It would be a terrible legacy to leave behind, no matter how much it could be justified by such arguments as the wisdom of living with yesterday's tyrant because today's tyrant could be worse - and what is meant here is not just the tyrant of unruly mobs, but also the tyrants of Muslim extremism and its relations with moderate Islamism in power. To be sure, there are on the Syrian scene many tyrants. The Islamic Republic of Iran is of course at the forefront of oppressive tyrants in the Iranian interior as well as in its regional neighborhood. It is also a direct party in the battle over Syria, which Tehran views as a battle against "the Great Satan" - America. It represents a funding element of incitation, which includes the Salafists, regardless of the confessional and doctrinal enmity between Salafist and Shiite forces. There is thus no need for short-sightedness and for jumping to arbitrary conclusions and policies. It is a delicate phase that requires the utmost awareness and close examination, with a mixture of boldness and caution.
Whether yesterday's or today's tyrants are concerned, it is not in the interest of the Arabs or of the United States to arbitrarily grow tense and be repulsed. This is the phase of shaping a new regional and world order, and it requires awareness, patience, insistence, cohesion and to pull the rug from under the feet of tyrants, whoever they may be.