By John Rapley
The tragic death of the American ambassador during last week's anti-American protests in Libya not only deprived the world of a capable and well-liked diplomat, but also revealed just how uncertain the Middle East has become in the Arab Spring's wake.
That an anti-Muslim rant would provoke rioting in the Muslim world, as the doctored Innocence of Muslims video circulating on the Internet did, is hardly a surprise. What is less evident is what connection the attack on the Libyan embassy bore to J. Christopher Stevens' death. Washington believes the attack was preplanned by radical Islamists, who took advantage of the cover the protests offered.
Across North and Central Africa, there has been a surge of radical Sunni Islam. In Mali, a virtual caliphate has been carved out in the north. And radical Islamists are exploiting not only the instability caused by the Arab Spring, but the opening provided by democracy, to advance their cause.
Washington's major concern is not Libya, though. Its government remains pro-American, and broad public opinion remains relatively unfriendly to Islamist extremism. Washington is, instead, worried about Egypt. There, the government, led by the Muslim Brotherhood, faces a particularly complex challenge. On one hand, it would prefer to maintain good relations with the US - both to maintain the aid it receives, and to attract much-needed investment to its moribund economy.
Pressure from radicals
But on the other, President Mohamed Morsi is coming under pressure from more radical elements, who challenge his government for being insufficiently Islamist. After all, the governing Muslim Brotherhood says it will maintain women's rights and has yet to ban alcohol. Egypt is not yet the caliphate that al-Qaida-inspired militants dream of creating.
So some of them have taken the fight to the streets. In the country's Sinai Peninsula, the vacuum created by the Arab Spring has enabled armed militants to move in and take over village councils. The president responded by shuffling the army's top command, removing loyalists to the fallen Mubarak regime, and promoting some more junior reformers. Some also suspect the army is taking a more Islamist hue. But the president can ill afford to let the country's sovereignty be challenged on its own turf. Islamists will now be fighting Islamists.
This reveals the tangled character of the emerging political landscape. It also explains why it is that President Obama recently described the USA's relationship to Egypt as a work in progress - the country is neither friend nor foe, and the White House is waiting to get some signals.
Those signals are difficult to read using the eyeglasses of the old world view. For example, last month, President Morsi snubbed the Americans by going against their wishes and attending the Non-Aligned Summit in Iran, America's arch-foe. Yet, once there, he promptly snubbed his hosts by calling for the overthrow of the Syrian regime, a key Iranian ally. Egypt's position on this issue matches that of the USA. But not for geopolitical reasons, but because Mr Morsi sees the Syrian revolt as one with the Egyptian uprising that helped bring him to power.
After protesters stormed the embassy in Cairo, around the same time the American consulate in Benghazi was breached, Mr Morsi condemned the incident. But his criticism of the protests, and his declaration that embassies would not be violated, sounded to Western ears more tepid than his damning of the video which provoked the incident. This will continue to be the way in the region's politics. The new governments' responses to events will try to strike a balance between different local factions, and won't fall neatly into the earlier Islamist-secularist splits.
Besides, the new governments produced by the Arab Spring will be judged principally for how they perform on day-to-day tasks. With garbage piling up in Cairo since refuse collectors have been unpaid, newly empowered voters will be holding Mr Morsi to account for more mundane matters than the creation of a caliphate. And his priorities will no longer always be those of foreign capitals.
John Rapley is a world-affairs expert. Email feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com.