Cairo—The main street leading to the United States embassy in downtown Cairo has been sealed by a twelve-foot-high wall of concrete blocks. The acrid scent of tear gas lingers in the air as hundreds of black-clad riot police roam the area in and around nearby Tahrir Square.
It was here that the first protests began on September 11 in response to an anti-Islam video that touched off demonstrations in some twenty countries across the Middle East and beyond. The protests in Egypt came to an end four days after they began with a decisive police crackdown. When the dust settled, at least one person was dead, more than 220 injured and over 430 arrested.
The distasteful and amateurish fourteen-minute video clip that ignited the unrest was first posted on YouTube in July, but it received scant attention until earlier this month, when Maurice Sadek, a Coptic Christian living in Washington DC, whose incendiary anti-Muslim campaigning led to the revocation of his Egyptian citizenship earlier this year, linked to a translated version of the film on an Arabic-language blog and highlighted it in an e-mail newsletter.
The independent daily Al Youm al Sabaa picked up the story and published a three-paragraph article on September 6 calling the film “shocking” and warning it could fuel sectarian tensions between Coptic Christians and Muslims in Egypt. An Islamic web forum soon carried the story, as did other newspapers, yet it remained off the front pages.
It wasn’t until September 9 that the story began to gain traction, when TV host Khaled Abdullah—known for his inflammatory rants against Christians, liberals and secularists—played a clip of the video on his show on El-Nas, a private religious satellite channel. Abdullah and his co-host railed against the film and accused expatriate Copts of wanting to “inflame Egypt.” The Coptic Church issued a statement disavowing the video, as did a number of expatriate Coptic groups.
The film quickly caught the attention of other ultraconservative Islamists in what became an echo chamber of calls to protest. Wesam Abdel Warith, the head of the Salafi television station al-Hekma and one of the principal protest organizers within the Salafi coalition, called for a demonstration to be held outside the US embassy on Tuesday, September 11, after hearing that extremist Florida pastor Terry Jones had planned to put the Prophet Muhammed on mock trial that day and sentence him to death.
In an interview with Al Jazeera English, Warith defended choosing to hold the protest outside the US embassy. “We are fully aware that the US administration is not responsible for the actions of individuals, but this was a message because we know as individuals we have no power to stop this absurdity,” he said.
The chorus of calls to protest continued to grow. Nader Bakkar, the spokesman for the Nour Party, the largest of Egypt’s three licensed Salafi parties, said the protest was necessary as a religious duty to defend the prophet.
“Islamists tried to capitalize on this event for their own political gains,” says Khalil al-Anani, a scholar in Middle East politics at Durham University. “But it started getting out of control. It’s a very risky game.”