The U.S. Senate voted down a bill this weekend that would have frozen aid money to Pakistan, Egypt and Libya. The bill’s sponsor, Republican Sen. Rand Paul, was right that Egypt no longer deserves American aid. But Libya does. Libya needs help, and it needs help right now. Libya should not only continue receiving the aid it’s already slated to get from Washington. Libya should also get Egypt’s.
Consider how differently the governments in each country have behaved in the last couple of weeks.
Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi, of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice party, refused to dispatch police officers or any other security personnel to protect American diplomats and property when a mob waving al Qaeda flags assaulted the embassy in Cairo on Sept. 11. His men continued to stand aside even after a terrorist cell across the border in Benghazi assassinated Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans. For days Mr. Morsi refused to condemn the violence in Cairo and Benghazi. In Egypt’s reactionary and hostile political climate, such actions would have appeared «pro-American.» He couldn’t have that.
Hardly anyone in the Muslim world actually watched the buffoonish anti-Muhammad Internet video that set off firestorm after firestorm this month. The video in question—it hardly deserves the appellation of «film»—is a trailer for an asinine low-budget schlock flick. It would still be languishing in oblivion had it not been rescued by Salafist preachers using recreational rage as a wedge issue. Entire swaths of the Arab and Muslim world were galvanized by these people. Rioting spread from Cairo to Indonesia and to most points in between, but with an exception bigger than Texas. It did not spread to Libya.
Almost everything that happened in Libya was the reverse of what happened almost everywhere else.
The Libyan exception began with the terrorist attack on Sept. 11 at the consulate in Benghazi. For a while it looked as if Libya’s reaction to the video might be the worst in the world, but that didn’t last. The assassination of Ambassador Stevens wasn’t part of a mob action or a hysterical demonstration. On the contrary: Spontaneous protests have erupted throughout the country, but not against the U.S. or a crackpot videographer out in Los Angeles. The Libyan protesters have stood squarely against the terrorists who killed Stevens and against the militias that have been running amok since Moammar Gadhafi was lynched last year in Sirte.
Reuters/Esam Al-FetoriA rally condemning the attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi.
Libyan demonstrators have displayed moving, hand-written signs: «Sorry people of America.» «Benghazi is against terrorism.» «Chris Stevens was a friend to all Libyans.» «Thugs and killers don’t represent Benghazi or Islam.» That’s what Libyans were saying while people elsewhere flew bin-Ladenist flags and set cars and buildings on fire. And it wasn’t just talk. The Libyan government swiftly arrested dozens of suspects following the Sept. 11 attacks. Ten days later, thousands of demonstrators in Benghazi seized the headquarters of an Islamist militia and forced its inhabitants to flee with their guns into the desert.
Egypt and Libya are as politically opposite from each other right now as they could be. In Egypt, Islamists beat secular parties in the elections last year by a two-to-one margin. In Libyan elections this year, the Islamists lost. This month Salafist preachers in Cairo ginned up an anti-American mob with the government’s tacit blessing. Meanwhile a terrorist attack by like-minded people in Libya galvanized citizens and the state in the other direction.
How does it make sense for the American government to give aid money to both?
The odds that the U.S. will get in a shooting war with Egypt are not large. But it’s a distinct possibility that Israel will, especially now that Mr. Morsi says he wants to «renegotiate» the peace treaty. The U.S. shouldn’t arm, train or fund both sides in a conflict anywhere in the world, and least of all in the Arab-Israeli conflict. Either way, bankrolling radical Islamists is idiotic. Leave that to the Saudis and the emir of Qatar. Sheer diplomatic inertia is the only reason the U.S. is still doing it.
American aid started flowing to Cairo not during the rule of Hosni Mubarak, but when his predecessor Anwar Sadat broke from the Soviet orbit, signed a peace treaty with Israel in 1979 and forged an alliance with Washington. Helping out the new Egypt then made perfect sense. But now, every week the new new Egypt looks more like Iran after the 1979 revolution—or, at best, like Pakistan, the biggest «frenemy» America has in the world. If Mr. Morsi wasn’t already being paid for what Sadat did in the 1970s, there’s no chance the U.S. Congress would put Egypt on the dole today. That would make no more sense than cutting checks to Hugo Chavez.
To be sure, paying off Egypt buys the U.S. some leverage. But if all America needs or wants now is leverage, it has other options, including the obvious: sanctions. Egypt has nothing Americans need, not even oil.
Libya, on the other hand, doesn’t only deserve American help. It needs American help.
The country is on a knife’s edge. The central government doesn’t control all of its territory, nor does it have a monopoly on the use of force, as a healthy and stable government should. Patches of Libya are under the thumbs of ideological and tribal militias.
Libya is in a transition phase. The country will cohere under a strong central government or come apart. If it comes apart, al Qaeda could break off a piece, as it did in Mali in April. The last thing the West needs right now is an oil-rich terrorist nest a short boat ride from Italy.
Popular sentiment in Libya toward the U.S. and the West in general is the opposite of sentiment in Egypt and pretty much everywhere else in the Arab world. That shouldn’t surprise us. Gadhafi fed his cowering subjects a steady diet of anti-Americanism for decades, but most Libyans hated him. They hated him so much they hardly even bothered to protest once the Arab Spring started. They just picked up their rifles and aimed to shoot him out of his palace. They knew Americans hated him, too. He was a common enemy. It matters, and it matters a lot. Libya’s relative pro-Americanism is similar at least in that way to Eastern Europe’s.
It may not last. Libyans could end up joining the Arab world’s anti-American mainstream. For now, though, they’re standing apart from all that. They need American help against the militias, and they’re worth the risk. The alternative is worse by far than anything we’re seeing in Cairo.
Mr. Totten is a contributing editor at World Affairs and City Journal, and is the prize-winning author of «Where the West Ends» (Belmont Estate, 2012) and «The Road to Fatima Gate» (Encounter, 2011).