As Americans commemorated the anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks on Tuesday, protesters in Cairo shredded and burned the American flag and scaled the walls of the U.S. Embassy.
At least 2,000 demonstrators, enraged over Innocence of Muslims, a little-known film produced in the United States that allegedly insults the Prophet Muhammad, shouted, “We will sacrifice ourselves for you, Allah’s messenger!” A group of men managed to mount the embassy’s walls waving a black flag with the words “There is no God but God, and Muhammad is his messenger.” Many of those gathered did not know the name of the film, nor did they know the details of their grievance against the U.S. pastor linked to it, Terry Jones, whose 2010 threats to burn the Quran triggered deadly riots in Afghanistan. Similar attacks were reported on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, where an American was killed and part of the consulate burned, according to Al Jazeera.
Al-Azhar, one of the Arab world’s most elite centers for higher Islamic learning, reportedly condemned the film on Tuesday, citing a scene in which a character based on the Prophet Muhammad goes on trial. The Wall Street Journal reported that Innocence of Muslims’ writer, editor, and producer is a 52-year-old American, Sam Bacile. Jones is promoting the film, whose new 14-minute Arabic-dubbed trailer on YouTube depicts the Prophet as a deranged womanizer calling for massacres.
The organization standupamericanow.org ran a live stream on Tuesday of a press conference featuring Jones in what he dubbed “International Judge Muhammad Day,” during which he listed reasons why, in his opinion, the Prophet should be put on hypothetical trial.
Muslims consider any depiction of the Prophet, be it in an illustration or film, to be a violation of Islamic belief. Similar protests were staged outside the Danish Embassy in Cairo and across the Muslim world in 2005 after the daily newspaper Jyllands-Posten published satirical cartoons depicting the Prophet.
“The U.S. cannot control the actions of every bigot who wants to vent his or her anger and ignorance,” said Paul Sullivan, a North Africa expert at National Defense University. “Unfortunately, such bigotry projected onto the Internet can bring great danger and anger across the globe.”
Even approaching to the U.S. Embassy in Cairo is no small feat. A veritable fortress, the complex shares Latin America Street with the British Embassy and is a sea of military checkpoints, tank blockades, and police surveillance. The 12 entry points to the street have been sealed off with high-level security since mass protests targeted the foreign government complexes at the start of the 2003 Iraq invasion. It’s a short walk from Tahrir Square, and authorities have further clamped down on security since the 2011 revolution. A court order in July 2011 ruled the military blockades illegal and called for all the surrounding routes to be opened to traffic. While some cars are allowed to pass, heavy security remains in effect today.
The embassy did not immediately comment on the incident, though it said via Twitter that it would cancel visa services on Wednesday. The State Department said in a statement that it is working with Egyptian security to restore order. The embassy had released a statement earlier Tuesday appearing to apologize for the film, saying: “The Embassy of the United States in Cairo condemns the continuing efforts by misguided individuals to hurt the religious feelings of Muslims—as we condemn efforts to offend believers of all religions.” The White House disavowed that statement Tuesday night, telling Politico: “The statement by Embassy Cairo was not cleared by Washington and does not reflect the views of the United States government.”
Assistant Secretary for Economic and Business Affairs Jose Fernandez and a delegation from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce were in Cairo at the time of the protests.
“There are 30 major companies, top-level officials, and others from the U.S. there trying to figure out whether to invest in Egypt and whether to give aid to Egypt,” said Sulllivan. “This will throw things off. I can certainly see some businesspeople rethinking some of their investment ideas a bit after this.”
While these protests are likely to die down almost as quickly as they began, the incident adds to the tumultuous transformation of this longtime friendship. U.S.-Egyptian relations have undergone a makeover of sorts since the revolution last year that toppled steadfast U.S. ally Hosni Mubarak and led to the rise of Islamists with whom the U.S. has traditionally been wary of engaging. President Mohamed Morsi, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, is U.S.-educated and believed to be genuine in his intentions to maintain strong ties with the United States. (Egypt receives $1.3 billion annually from the United States in military aid.) However, Morsi’s recent trip to Iran, the first in more than three decades by any Egyptian leader, was a signal that Egypt’s new leadership sees friendship as a two-way street.
“This protest does not speak to any significant cooling off in relations between the U.S. government and the new Egyptian regime, but rather indicates that cultural and religious politics have effectively been massified,” said Adel Iskandar, a media and Arab studies scholar at Georgetown University. “The public is easily agitated and can erupt in a moment’s time, suggesting a level of engagement that was uncharacteristic of the Mubarak era.”