The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

A few words on embassy riots

I've had a couple of very busy days here and am about to return to Cairo after a couple of months of absence. Id did write this op-ed for The National which captures some of my initial thoughts about what I'm calling, for shorthand, the embassy riots. Needless to say I find these very depressing, and as my thinking evolves about them (being quite far away from them at the moment) I am not satisfied that I know enough about the evolution of the protests — how they started, who initiated them, etc. 

It appears very likely that the Benghazi attack that killed US diplomats was a pre-planned attack by a group probably trying to avenge the death of Sheikh al-Libi, an al-Qaeda leader. And it seems that the initial Egyptian protests were in good part due to a call by a small Salafi group led by Mohammed Zawahri (Ayman's brother) and a few fellow travellers, and timed for the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. That these protests expanded and got out of hand speaks volumes of the complicated, chaotic situation in Egypt. (I'll pass on the government's reaction, or lack thereof, for now.) I think it is important to see who involved in getting the ball rolling — and particularly the international network of Islamist activists who amplify and spread this manufactured outrage (I say manufactured because why now and not, say, at the time of the scandal over the desecreation of Quran by US soldiers in Afghanistan or other incidents?)

I'll write more in the next few days, but here is an excerpt from The National op-ed:

Islamist movements (even if they are not alone in this) have shown that they excel in using an insult (real or perceived) as part of their culture wars: the tactic is to portray themselves as the sole defenders of the faith. In this week's case, they chose to do so even though the film in question was released only online and no one would have heard of it or paid attention to it without their efforts.

This, perhaps, is what has changed between the 1988 Rushdie fatwa and more recent examples of Islamist outrage: thanks to the internet, a regional Danish newspaper or an amateur film have become targets just as much as a celebrated, best-selling novelist.

Not that these protests, riots and killings are entirely about insults anyway: that the protesters chose to target US embassies has as much to do with other grievances (US-led wars, support for Israel, etc) and the convenience of having a prominent address, since protests outside the filmmaker's house, say, are out of the question.

One can certainly question why protest organisers chose the embassies, as if the US government was responsible for a film made by one of its citizens. And why do organisers sometimes lie, as when Nader Bakkar - who speaks for Egypt's Salafi Nour Party, a partner with President Mohammed Morsi's party - told Al Jazeera Mubasher that the film had been broadcast on US channels?

And why, despite the risks of escalation made obvious by the attack that killed four American diplomats in Benghazi, did the Muslim Brotherhood's secretary general, Mahmoud Ghozlan, call for new protests after Friday prayers?