Yesterday, on the eleventh anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, an Egyptian mob stormed the U.S. embassy in Cairo, pulled down the American flag and burned it. In its place, they raised a black banner inscribed with the shehada ("There is no God but Allah, Mohamed is the messenger of Allah"), a pennant typically associated with al Qaeda.
The timing and symbolism are significant. They are designed to anger the American public and unnerve an American president in the middle of an electoral campaign. The key uncertainty is whether they are meant to build support for Egypt’s new president, the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohamed Morsi, or to undermine him.
Protesters claimed they were moved to act because of a film that portrays the prophet of Islam unfavorably. The Obama administration’s response was defective, to say the least. Taking the protesters' pretext at face value, the U.S. embassy in Cairo’s Twitter feed was set to automatic apology yesterday. “Respect for religious beliefs is a cornerstone of American democracy,” read one, as the mob outside seethed.
The embassy also issued a press release—condemning “the continuing efforts by misguided individuals to hurt the religious feelings of Muslims”—so abject that the White House felt compelled to put distance between itself and its diplomats under siege. An administration official told Politico that, "The statement by Embassy Cairo was not cleared by Washington and does not reflect the views of the United States government.” However, the secretary of state’s comments yesterday on the matter are barely distinguishable from those the administration disavowed: “The United States deplores any intentional effort to denigrate the religious beliefs of others,” said Hillary Clinton. “Our commitment to religious tolerance goes back to the very beginning of our nation.”
The movie in question, “Mohamed, Prophet of the Muslims,” was originally shot in English and, according to the New York Times, was financed by an Israeli-American living in California, which now seems to be inaccurate. Some earlier reports, citing the Egyptian press, claimed that the film was made by two Coptic Christian émigrés, looking to foment sectarian tension back in their homeland, in tandem with Terry Jones, the publicity-seeking Florida preacher who burned a Koran back in 2010 against the objections of then defense secretary Robert Gates.
However, what role Jones really had in the film is still unclear. The Times claims that the “video gained international attention when a Florida pastor began promoting it along with his own proclamation of Sept. 11 as ‘International Judge Muhammad Day.’” However, it was not until sections of the film were dubbed into Egyptian colloquial dialect and shown on an Islamist-oriented channel on Egyptian TV that it incited the passions of local viewers. The movie is a garish, adolescent riff on Muslim history and doctrine that portrays Mohamed as an oversexed, polyamorous and none-too-bright brigand whose revelation consists of an admixture of mangled Christian and Jewish doctrine. Those offended by Mel Brooks’s portrayal of Moses receiving the Ten Commandments will really be upset by this parody.
The movie, though, is ultimately beside the point, as is Jones’s putative involvement. The importance they’ve been given in press reports is a telltale sign that the American media are more eager to find fault with fringe American provocateurs than Islamist extremists and killers. The reality is that violent demonstrations in the Muslim world against Western insensitivity to Muslim feelings are rarely held for the reasons publicly stated. More often than not, they’re about political leverage, not civilizational conflict.
For instance, the 2006 protests against the Mohamed cartoons served a number of political interests around the region. In Damascus, it was simply an act of terror as Syrian president Bashar al-Assad used the massive demonstrations, in which protestors set fire to the Danish and Swedish embassies, to warn the Europeans not to take sides with the Bush administration against his regime. In Beirut, Sunni leaders organized protest marches on Scandinavian embassies as a counteroffensive against their Shia rival Hezbollah, to show who really represented Muslim interests and power.
So what’s happening in Cairo? It’s important to keep in mind that Egypt, in spite of the country’s freest elections ever that brought Morsi to power, is still a hard security state. When a mob takes to the streets it is because someone has sent it there or is allowing it to be there. Many mistook this basic principle about who owns the streets when the Egyptian revolution started in January 2011 and it seemed that the Egyptian people were taking possession of their own lives as well as the street—but then again, at the time many also thought that the future of Egyptian politics looked like a government brokered by Facebook.
Instead, it was the Muslim Brotherhood who won Egypt and therefore control of its streets. The most obvious explanation then is that Morsi and the Brotherhood sent those hordes to the embassy for a very simple purpose—to get more money from the Americans to keep their economy from capsizing. In effect, it’s a protection racket, or a straight hostage deal—pay up and no one gets hurt, we’ll protect you.
However, as Thomas Joscelyn writes, Ayman al-Zawahiri’s brother Mohamed has made a splash at the protests, which suggests something much more dangerous is going on. To wit—that Morsi has little control over the protestors because they were sent by the Brotherhood’s Islamist rivals, the Salafi movement.
As Raymond Ibrahim first reported on Monday, an Egyptian newspaper published a story last week claiming that “Jihadi groups in Egypt…have issued a statement threatening to burn the U.S. Embassy in Cairo to the ground” unless fighters imprisoned and detained in the United States, including Guantanamo Bay, are released. According to the Egyptian media source, the group consists of many al Qaeda members and made a special point in calling for the quick release of Omar Abdul Rahman, aka the "Blind Sheikh,” sentenced for his involvement in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. The “mujahid sheikh,” the statement said, “was ignored by the Mubarak regime, and [President] Morsi is refusing to intervene on his behalf and release him, despite promising that he would.”
The Salafis, that is, may be looking to embarrass Morsi. The demonstration in that case is also aimed at Egyptians, a signal that the Salafis are now in open conflict with the Brotherhood—a conflict in which the U.S. embassy and its employees, from diplomats to Marines, are being used as markers.
This would be a cunning move by the Salafis insofar as they recognize that Morsi’s options are limited. Sure, the new Egyptian president doesn’t want to anger the White House, but his hands are tied. If the security services fire on protestors demonstrating on behalf of what has been sold as a Muslim cause—the release of jihadi fighters as well as the movie—then he and the Brotherhood will be seen as U.S. stooges, as bad as the last Egyptian president, Hosni Mubarak.
Morsi may be wishing right now he still had former Field Marshal Tantawi around to hang this one on. If it was Tantawi or any of the holdovers from the Mubarak regime who gave the order to fire on the Salafis, Morsi would escape blame from the Egyptians and win praise from the White House for his resolve. But Morsi is all alone now. If he doesn't do something to assert control, the Salafis will have won the initiative and shown Morsi they can hurt him at any time.
Obviously the worst outcome here is a hostage crisis, with American lives put in danger. The next worst is a resolution brokered by the Salafis and “peace envoy” Mohamed Zawahiri showing that they have a vote when it comes to major security issues, like how to deal with Washington. If that happens, the Brotherhood and the Salafis will be squared off against each other for some time and, as they’ve established here, use American citizens, allies and interests for leverage against each other.
If Obama doesn’t act decisively to change the equation, letting Morsi know that he has more to fear from the United States than from the men in long beards and waving black flags, this is likely to get much worse, and very quickly.