An extremist fringe has emerged from the Arab Spring
A DISTURBING aspect of the Arab Spring has come to the fore: rising religious extremism. Egypt launched a mini offensive into the northern Sinai after militants attacked a police station on Aug 5, killing 16 border guards as they prepared for iftar. The peninsula abutting Gaza and Israel, bristling with disgruntled Bedouins and displaced Palestinians, has been restive since the toppling of Hosni Mubarak in February last year.
Terrorism in Syria, largely ignored by the West in the obsession with defeating the regime of President Bashar Assad, is a significant element in its civil war. As in Gaza, so-called "jihadists" no longer lurk in the shadows, and are not shy of being seen by Western reporters among refugees in the north-west of the country bordering Turkey. And as the Syrian conflict takes on a more sectarian hue, the holy warriors can be expected to exploit any Sunni-Shia schism.
The most serious unintended consequence of the Arab Spring, however, is taking place in Mali. Poor and barely held together by the government, the North African country had nevertheless been a functioning democracy for two decades. Then an extraordinary thing happened to upset what little balance there was: an overflow of arms from last year's Libyan civil war next door.
A secessionist uprising in the north overran the army in January and so destabilised the capital Bamako that a coup two months later deposed President Amadou Toumani Toure. The initially victorious Tuareg rebels were quickly usurped by al-Qaeda affiliates, who have begun a reign of horror in the territories they control that is eerily reminiscent of the Taliban in Afghanistan. The destruction of ancient shrines, stoning of alleged adulterers and amputations of accused thieves have been reported. With the government in disarray, Mali is in danger of collapsing. A new front in the "war on terror" is threatening to open.
As in Syria, conflict in Mali could suck in the Maghreb region and countries to the south. As in Syria, too, the first instinct of some outsiders is to send in troops. Keener observers like the International Crisis Group warn against intervening militarily, noting how Mali had been hit by "the unprecedented external shock of the Libyan crisis".
Libyan weapons, from the stockpiles of the ousted Muammar Gaddafi as well as those supplied by Nato and other countries supporting his foes, have even found their way to Gaza. As the Arab Spring unfolded from December 2010, it was thought that Osama bin Laden's legacy would disappear in the seething vortex of popular revolt in the Middle East. This has not been the case, at least not yet.