No-one seems to be making the link between yesterday’s riot
at an Egyptian ferry terminal following the Red Sea tragedy and the
more widespread riots over the Prophet Muhammad cartoons. But in fact
it throws some light on the nature of Middle Eastern politics.

Firstly, it shows why so many people in these countries vote for the
likes of Hamas. They assume from long experience that their officials
are corrupt and incompetent; when disaster strikes, it is taken to be
not just misfortune, but malfeasance. “Riot police used teargas to
restore order after family members destroyed furniture and attacked a
fire engine at the offices of the ship’s owners in Safaga,” as the BBC reported; “Egyptian government spokesman Magdi Radi said that the authorities were doing their best.” But people no longer believe them.

The Islamic parties, whatever else their faults, are seen to be clean.
Last year’s elections in Egypt showed strong gains for Hamas’s parent,
the Muslim Brotherhood, and if they had been fairly conducted it’s
quite likely the Brotherhood would have won control.

Secondly, violent protest is a way of life in this part of the world –
not because Muslims are naturally less peaceful than westerners, but
because government has been so authoritarian for so long that violence
is the only way of getting heard.

That’s why the triumph of Hamas, despite its dangerous ideology, is not
necessarily a bad thing. It at least showed that the democratic road to
conflict resolution is still open. When was the last time that any Arab
government, even one as ramshackle as the Palestinian Authority, was
voted out of office?

Christian fundamentalists don’t express themselves in violent mobs the
way Muslim fundamentalists do, but that’s because they don’t have to.
Instead they operate in functioning democracies where politicians can
be found to do their bidding – witness Tony Abbott and RU486. The
organised force of the state is much more effective than a few riots.