Farah Hached, a prominent lawyer in Tunisia, thought the authorities would be ready if the anti-American unrest came her country’s way. It had started last Tuesday, when protesters at the U.S. Embassy in Cairo stormed the 12-foot concrete walls and replaced the American flag with an Islamic one, while armed men in the Libyan city of Benghazi took advantage of a similar protest to attack the consulate there and kill the U.S. ambassador. The demonstrations spread as far as Yemen, Iran, and Iraq over the next two days. “The government had three days to prepare. They should have been ready,” says Hached, who runs Laboratoire Démocratique, a human-rights NGO in Tunis.
Instead, protesters breached the U.S. Embassy in Tunis on Friday, lighting fires and tearing down the flag. A venerable American school was also attacked, its students sent home early before the building was ransacked. Yet another cornerstone of the Arab Spring—the country that lit its fuse, in fact—had become engulfed in the furor over an anti-Islam film that gripped some of the same streets across the region last week that were claimed by pro-democracy protesters last year. “People are shocked,” Hached says.
Over the weekend, the United States pulled its nonessential diplomatic staff out of Tunisia, citing security concerns, and urged all Americans in the country to leave. It did the same in Sudan, where 5,000 people reportedly rallied at the U.S. Embassy on Friday. Marines have been sent to protect diplomatic sites in Libya and Yemen, while protesters attempted to storm the U.S. Consulate in Karachi, Pakistan’s largest city, on Sunday. And the leader of Hizbullah, the militant group based in Lebanon, called for the U.S. government to be “held accountable,” encouraging protests next week.
But the unrest that swept across the Muslim world last week—sparked by a low-budget, Islam-bashing film made by provocateurs in America, excerpted on YouTube, and recently dubbed into Arabic—largely seemed to have calmed. As the violence ebbed, some turned their attention to what had happened and why, questions that seemed especially pressing for residents of the Arab Spring countries that are still working to find their footing after decades of authoritarian rule.
In Cairo, where what started as a peaceful, Salafi-led protest devolved into protesters storming the U.S. Embassy on Tuesday and then days of clashes with police, life tentatively resumed its regular pace. Hundreds of agitators were arrested early Saturday morning, and by nightfall traffic was flowing through Tahrir Square after being blocked by protesters the day before. Personnel carriers lined the surrounding streets, the police packed inside them looking exhausted and on edge. One officer posted across from the embassy had the same view of the unrest that many residents expressed: “Of course we oppose the movie, but it shouldn’t come to this,” he said.
Ahmed Adel, who works on the tourist boats docked nearby on the Nile, put his unhappiness with the protests in harsher terms: “I’m angry for my prophet, OK? But what the fuck does the American Embassy have to do with it?”
Adel used the word “jungle” to describe the country as he detailed the security concerns that worry many Egyptians these days. He wasn’t the only one to use the word. Residents said lax security meant that seemingly anything could become a flashpoint for unrest—and that the religious passions stirred by the outcry over the film had provided a perfect opportunity. “Fundamentalism is becoming more prevalent in Egypt, for Muslims and Christians alike. And you can add to that the biggest problem: there is no police presence,” said Joseph Nessim of the Democratic Front, a liberal political party. “Egypt has turned into a jungle.”
“We thought that after the elections, things would calm down,” said Mahmoud Taha, who watched the embassy incident unfold from the pharmacy he runs across the street. “Here in Egypt, people can be protesting something, and then without any reason it can come to violence.”
As the clashes played out last week, Egypt’s newly elected Islamist leaders seemed torn between championing the rage against the film and the distancing themselves from the agitators that rage was helping to inspire. Many of the young protesters said they were defending the Prophet Muhammad and added that they wouldn’t be satisfied until the filmmakers were punished. In a statement, President Mohamed Morsi, whose tepid initial response to the unrest strained relations with America, had urged the U.S. Embassy to take “all legal measures” against the people behind the film.
Many observers thought Egypt’s leaders were only antagonizing the situation. “None of the political leaders have come out and said that the U.S. government is not responsible for what its citizens say and do. It’s worrying, right?” said Ed Husain, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, in an interview as the clashes continued last week. (The Egyptian prime minister said in a BBC Arabic interview on Saturday that the U.S. government had no role in the controversial film.)
Lack of security also seemed to be one of the main causes of the tragedy in Libya, where armed men in the city of Benghazi took advantage of Tuesday's protest to attack the consulate there, killing Chris Stevens, the popular U.S. ambassador. The armed militias that helped to overthrow Muammar Gaddafi have largely refused to disarm, and the fledgling government relies on some of them to help it police. It remains unclear exactly who carried out the consulate assault and why, but on Sunday, Mohamed Magariaf, the president of the Libyan General Congress, told CBS News that 50 people had been arrested in connection with the attack.
In Yemen, where security has badly deteriorated since authoritarian president Ali Abdullah Saleh was pushed from power, the al Qaeda branch based in the country called for more U.S. diplomats to be killed.
The recent protests spanned more than 20 countries, reaching nations as diverse as Nigeria and Australia. In the Arab Spring countries, where hundreds of thousands of people flooded the streets to make their voices heard last year, some revolutionaries were unnerved that relatively small groups of people had managed to create such a stir.
In Libya, far more people turned out for counterprotests against what took place in Benghazi than attended the one that led to Stevens’s death. “The main issue here is lack of security in the country. Any militia, anti-American or not, can do whatever it wants,” said Lamaan Buisier, a youth activist in Benghazi. “The group that did the attack was not big, but it was violent and loud. Many people here are very upset about what happened, because they don’t want to be isolated from the world again.”
“The majority of people are hurt,” said Hached, the Tunisian lawyer. The protesters “are a small group, but they are making a lot of noise. And the government failed to stop them.”
(In Syria, where an increasingly bloody crackdown against the country’s own revolution was knocked suddenly off the front pages last week, many are incredulous at the commotion over the film. “I have seen mosques destroyed ... not to mention slaughter, rape, and mass killing,” said a Damascus-based activist who goes by the name Alexia Jade. “This has been going on for 18 months, and still, the world is obsessing over a short movie, made by actors, rather than the horrible things happening to real people.”)
Many of those who were against the protests in Cairo seemed unable or unwilling to respond. The liberal activists who were the face of the revolution in the West largely steered clear of the issue. One revolutionary activist said that most of that crowd was generally depressed—she was the only one of her activist friends not on antidepressants, she said Sunday, as she made her way to a class on meditation, which she’d taken up instead.
An official at a prominent Cairo NGO recalled writing draft after draft of the organization’s official response to the film and unrest: “What we really want to say would get us thrown out the seventh-floor window. So what do you do?”
Reporting contributed by Omid Memarian.