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.”
By mid-afternoon on Tuesday, protesters started gathering in front of the embassy, chanting slogans for the prophet and against the United States. A few thousand eventually turned up and were joined by a small group of Copts as well as Ultras, the soccer fans who have long been at the forefront of protests against security forces in Egypt. Police did nothing to prevent a number of protesters from scaling the 12-foot outer wall of the compound and bringing down the American flag, which had been flying at half mast to mark the anniversary of 9/11, eventually burning it and replacing it with an Islamic one.
“Essentially, security didn’t do anything,” says Michael Wahid Hanna, a fellow at the Century Foundation. “When they want to enforce security around an embassy they do it,” he says, pointing to the police crackdown on demonstrators outside the Syrian embassy a week earlier.
While the size and scope of the protest was relatively small in comparison to the continued demonstrations and strikes across Egypt over more hard-pressing domestic issues, the incident made international headlines and quickly became a global front-page story when news emerged that four American staffers, including US ambassador Christopher Stevens, had been killed in an attack on the US embassy in Benghazi the same day.
The protests continued into Wednesday as reactions poured in from government officials and political groups. Presidential spokesperson Yasser Ali said the presidency denounced any insult to the prophet and condemned the film, while stressing respect for peaceful demonstrations and a commitment to protect foreign embassies. Ali said President Mohammed Morsi mandated the Egyptian Embassy in the United States to take all possible legal action against the film’s producers. Meanwhile, the public prosecutor put nine Coptic expatriates believed to have contributed to the production of the video on an airport watchlist.
Morsi’s group, the Muslim Brotherhood, the most powerful political force in Egypt, issued a call for mass Friday protests. Mahmoud Hussein, the secretary general of the Brotherhood, published a statement on the group’s website calling for peaceful demonstrations in front of the main mosques across the country and called on all national forces to join.
“The Brotherhood don’t want to alienate people that they think are potentially part of their base,” says Hanna. “They always understand that the Salafis are a challenge to them, a political rival from the right.”
But it wasn’t only Islamist groups that fanned the flames. The liberal Democratic Front Party called on Morsi to postpone his visit to the United States, scheduled for later this month, in protest of the video. The leftist Tagammu Party said in a statement that the makers of the film “dedicate their services to the Zionist movement and the American administration.”
“There are different motivations behind the protests, depending on who you are talking about,” says al-Anani. “Islamists need to prove their Islamic credentials, the ultras have a combination of religious and nationalist elements, others protest to put pressure on Morsi and corner the Brotherhood. It’s very complex.”
By Wednesday night, clashes erupted outside the embassy between Central Security Forces and a few hundred protesters with both sides hurling rocks at each other. The continued street battle eventually prompted the police to fire tear gas and force the crowd away from the embassy to the outskirts of Tahrir Square.
The clashes continued throughout the day on Thursday with approximately 200 protesters armed with rocks facing off against security forces backed by police trucks firing continuous volleys of tear gas. Barely twenty yards away, weekday traffic snarled around Tahrir Square, unintimidated by the fighting.
The protesters engaging the police at this point were mostly young and poor and unaffiliated with any Islamist movements. Though many cited the insult to the prophet as the reason for protesting, they often had only a vague knowledge of the film and voiced their grievances in general terms.
“We are here because we have a conflict with the police,” said Mohamed Samir, a 20-year-old member of the Revolutionary Youth Movement. “I have my reservations about this protest, but I am here in solidarity. You’ll find many of these people don’t even pray, but there is a red line that you cannot cross.” As he spoke, three young men took a break from the fighting and stood on the edge of the square throwing rocks at a palm tree to try to knock down dates to eat.
Meanwhile, President Obama had telephoned Morsi early Thursday morning to voice his concerns over the situation. Obama had caused a stir in a TV interview the night before by saying, “I don’t think we would consider [Egypt] an ally, but we don’t consider them an enemy.” The White House later backtracked, with spokesperson Tommy Vietor downplaying the comment and insisting Obama didn’t intend to signal any changes in US-Egypt relations.
Later that day, Morsi made an appearance on national television in what appeared to be an effort to strike a more conciliatory tone. “I know the people attacking the embassies do not represent any of us. We all have to cooperate to express opinions while maintaining our principles, our correct peaceful ways the whole world accepts,” he said.
“Morsi was torn between appeasing the Islamists and the conservative base and jeopardizing his relationship with the United States,” al-Anani says.
In a letter to the editor in The New York Times, Khairet al-Shater, the Brotherhood’s influential deputy head and its chief strategist and financier, also reached out. “Despite our resentment of the continued appearance of productions like the anti-Muslim film that led to the current violence, we do not hold the American government or its citizens responsible for acts of the few that abuse the laws protecting freedom of expression,” he wrote.
On Friday, the Brotherhood withdrew its calls for nationwide protests saying it would participate only in a “symbolic” demonstration in Tahrir. Nevertheless, several hundred protesters gathered in the square after noon prayers to denounce the film, many unaffiliated with any Islamist group or movement.
“It is a big myth to assume that the Brotherhood is controlling the Egyptian street, particularly when it comes to religious issues,” al-Anani says. “There is a growing presence of Egyptians that are religious without being Islamist.”
The majority of protesters stayed in Tahrir, away from the ongoing street battle with some trying to prevent people from nearing the embassy premises. Earlier that morning security forces had erected a twelve-foot-high wall on the main street leading to the embassy and retreated behind it, sporadically lobbing over canisters of tear gas. A few dozen protesters, mostly young men, continued to throw rocks over the wall and stood atop it taunting the police.
“I am here to respond to any insults to the prophet and American filmmakers,” says Ahmed Yahia, a 38-year-old protester in the middle of Tahrir as he held aloft a large green flag with the Muslim declaration of faith in white script. “I couldn’t be silent in the face of these insults, but I am against attacks on embassy because these are peaceful people, and we promised to protect them.”
Protesters’ demands spanned the gamut, including an apology from President Obama, the expulsion of the US ambassador, prosecuting the filmmakers, a ban on the film and a law forbidding insults to the prophet.
The following morning uniformed and plainclothes security forces launched a raid on the remaining protesters, arresting hundreds of people and street vendors in a mass sweep, characteristic of the police tactics of indiscriminate detention that remain unreformed. With police deployed heavily in the area, an uneasy calm settled in, and the angry rhetoric from political and religious groups continued to subside.
By Sunday, the issue had receded into the background with millions of Egyptians transfixed by that evening’s soccer match between Ahly and Zamalek, the country’s two legendary sporting rivals.