Cairo’s Many Shades of Protests: What They Reveal About How the New Egypt Operates

The response to the Salafi-led Sept. 11 demonstration was as amateurish as the incendiary movie itself. It exposes the inexperience of the Muslim Brotherhood rulers – and how speedy they are (or aren’t) at damage control

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AP

Egyptian protesters gather around a burning vehicle in downtown Cairo, Egypt on Sept. 15, 2012.

Ever since the revolution that ousted Hosni Mubarak from power in February 2011, Fridays in Cairo have served as a convenient political and social barometer. On any given Friday over the past 18 months, somebody was invariably protesting something somewhere—providing Egypt-watchers an imperfect but useful instrument for gauging the national mood, and the strength and demographics of this week’s batch of demonstrators.

But the latest “Protest Friday” in Cairo (dubbed by the organizers as the “Friday of Defending the Prophet”) served up something fairly unusual by local standards: two completely separate protests—both angry over the same thing but with very different tones and makeups –taking place about five-minutes walk from each other.

(PHOTOS: Protests Rage in Middle East, Sparked by Mysterious Anti-Islamic Film)

Inside Tahrir Square, a small crowd of perhaps 1,000 demonstrators—overwhelmingly Islamist—marched and chanted for hours. The mood was heavily anti-American: President Barack Obama was decried as a “terrorist,” there were frequent calls to expel U.S. Ambassador Anne Patterson and at least one homemade American flag was burned. But there was also no desire among the Tahrir contingent to attack or even approach the nearby U.S. embassy.

About 500 meters away, a very different dynamic was on display; a hardcore contingent of around 300 young men waged a pitched battle with riot police who were blocking access to the embassy. The protesters used hails of rocks and the occasional Molotov cocktail. The police constructed a wall of massive concrete blocks to seal off the main entry point to the embassy gates and frequently scattered the resilient demonstrators with volleys of tear gas. This group of protesters often shouted anti-American slogans but generally displayed no discernible ideology—partially soccer hooligans and partially just angry testosterone-fueled youth looking for action. It was often unclear whether the black-clad Central Security riot cops were the obstacle in the path of the protestors or the target themselves.

The visual and tactical split between these parallel protests spoke volumes about the way the last few days have gone–ever since a previously obscure and extremely amateurish film insulting the life and legacy of the Prophet Muhammad touched off the ongoing waves of Muslim rage that continue to spread throughout the region.

(MORE: After Benghazi Consulate Attack, What’s Next for U.S. Relations with Libya and Egypt?)

Ultraconservative Salafist Muslims and other Islamist factions essentially started this fight when—bolstered by several inflammatory television sheikhs—they marshaled a large  protest outside the embassy gates on Tuesday evening, coinciding with the anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks on the U.S.. But having sparked the protests, the Islamists seem to have almost immediately lost control.

By Wednesday evening the clashes had begun—often despite the best efforts of some of the Islamist groups on the scene. On Thursday, I witnessed this dynamic in action as a temporary peace between police and protestors dramatically broke down.

A group of young men suddenly resumed throwing rocks at the police—who largely huddled behind a phalanx of plexiglass shields and made no offensive moves at first.  Into this maelstrom stepped an incredibly brave group of bearded men—and one woman wearing the full Saudi-style niqab. Facing down a hail of rocks and yelling for calm, they essentially acted as voluntary human shields for the police. (In a slightly humorous side-drama, the Islamist men repeatedly kept dragging the woman away and yelling at her to stay on the sidelines for her own safety.)

(VIDEO: Egyptians Gather Together (But Not United) in Tahrir Square)

The intervention failed and the tear gas volleys began again. Eventually the Islamist forces, having failed to mediate the situation, disassociated themselves completely and withdrew to Tahrir Square. The clashes continued all through Friday and late into the night, back and forth over the same narrow street that connects the Embassy grounds to Tahrir Square.  On Saturday morning around 8 a.m., a massive multi-pronged police offensive violently cleared the area and arrested at least 200 demonstrators.

Friday also served as a clear signal that the violent aftermath of the film controversy isn’t ready to fade away; in fact it might still be escalating. The scope of Muslim anger increased dramatically, with violent protests erupting in Tunisia, Lebanon, Yemen and Sudan.

All through this crisis, the young government of Egyptian President Mohamed Morsy has seemingly struggled to keep up—perhaps demonstrating the political inexperience of Morsy and his Muslim Brotherhood.  In the aftermath of the Tuesday night protests—when demonstrators scaled the U.S. embassy walls and replaced the American flag with the black banner of militant Islam—Morsy’s government was conspicuously silent. A government spokesman expressed condolences for the death of U.S. Ambassador to Libya Chris Stevens in an attack on the American consulate in Benghazi. But Morsy and his government said nothing to condemn the breach of the Cairo embassy grounds.

(PHOTOS: Celebrating the Muslim Brotherhood’s Victory)

It’s possible that Morsy was wary of taking on the Salafist and Islamist forces and opening himself up to accusations of being weak in his defense of the Prophet Muhammad’s reputation. If so, he badly miscalculated how this would play in Washington. When President Obama said in an interview that he considered Egypt to be not an enemy but also, “not an ally,” it was an immediate wake-up call. Within hours, Morsy was giving televised speeches saying disrespect for any embassy grounds in Egypt was unacceptable and powerful Muslim Brotherhood deputy chief Khairat Al Shater wrote a letter to the New York Times, calling the embassy breach “illegal under international law,” and generally saying all the things Morsy should have said a day earlier.

The Brotherhood—where Morsy was a senior official for years before winning the presidency and symbolically cutting ties with the group—also demonstrated its share of political growing pains this week. Perhaps seeking to gain the political initiative from their most conservative rivals, the Brotherhood called for a massive set of nationwide demonstrations on Friday. The move was widely decried as an irresponsible escalation in the raw and emotional current environment. On Friday, about two hours before those protests were set to begin, the Brotherhood made an abrupt and embarrassing reversal—suddenly cancelling the protests and downgrading things to a small “symbolic” gathering in the interests of public safety.

Ashraf Khalil is a Cairo-based journalist and author of Liberation Square: Inside the Egyptian Revolution and the Rebirth of a Nation.

PHOTOS: Protesters Scale U.S. Embassy Walls, Tear Down American Flag

29 comments
Go Vikes
Go Vikes

Thanks to Obama and Hillary Clinton's help, jihadi hooligans have made their way into power in the Mid East for the first time: Egypt, Libya and soon Syria.  Obama and Clinton were duped by Clinton's "favorite aide" Huma Abedin, a Muslim Brotherhood member, into creating 'Arab Spring'.

Now, jihadis like al-quaeda are in possession of weapons, likely purchased from the "financial help" from the US and allies.....  and, they are now showing their true colors. 

Our ambassador was killed by the very people that we helped, and probably with the weapons that we helped them to purchase.

Soon, we'll be sending shiploads of troops and spend trillions, fighting the same extremists we have helped in Arab Spring.

Four more years of this buffoonery under Obama, America??????????

Jim Heckt
Jim Heckt

And why exactly should the US provide any money to any country who's general populace hate us so much is beyond me.

Time for the US to put our money to good use and help our US populace .

We have plenty here that need help.

Stop wasting US tax dollars overseas where they do not want us.

Oh they may need us, but let's be clear and honest they despise us.

They want to kill us. They outright hate us in the middle east.

Time to leave and let them take care of themselves.

Time the US stop being the go to guy's for the world hot spots.

Time for us to stand aside and let things play out in the middle est without our interfering.

Time for the US government to start helping people in the US and  stop trying to buy friends and helping those who don't want our help.

Time for the US to stop supplying the world with arms and ammo.

Save some lives and some money. We need to get out of the middle east.

tma_sierrahills
tma_sierrahills

Just think how bad things would be if Islam were not a religion of peace.

loverofegypt
loverofegypt

I have lived in Cairo before and after their new government and during the dictatorship it was a safe place for us to walk on the streets.  But the average Egyptian wanted a government like the US.  They have never had free government so some of them were surprised when the two canidates they had to choose from were not who they wanted.  The continuing riots/demonstrations have been by the few rebel rousers that loved that 15 minutes of fame they received during the revolution and have nothing else to do but cause trouble.  They do not represent the majority.  The average Egyptian just wants  peace, affordabel food and more  jobs. This my opinion which I base on the Egyptian people that I have talked to .         

Lilium59
Lilium59

I have the common sence to know that these ugly actions are not done by all the people of Egypt and other middle east countries, alot of the people are ashame of these idiots doing this, but we have commentators over here like  S and R that want you to believe that it is all of the middle east behind this, so that you can support a world war on the whole region, and I dont blame the president for taking his time to meet with  the president of Israel, because he wants to go to war against Iran and want the USA to back him, and all you right wing rebels who agree with this insane notion, without the facts of any of this are just as worse.

Sardonic_Soul
Sardonic_Soul

It's nice to see that the Egyptian Amateurs are as awkward as our Whitehouse Amatuers!!!  I suspect both groups take orders from the same source of bearded ones, however, they DO seem to be rather orchestrated into lockstep over there and over here.   Long live the Waheebocrats!!!

frostback
frostback

No one need be surprised at what is happening today in Egypt, Libya, and so many other places.

A most revealing event took place when the Israelis moved the last settlers out of Gaza, some time back. A number of highly-sophisticated hydroponic farms were too large to move, so they were left in place for the new Palestinian owners. Of course, the Palestinians knew exactly what to do with this equipment -- they destroyed it on the spot.

Why? Because it will never be about what the Arabs can achieve. They've already given up on that. It's only about what they can prevent others from achieving.

Howienica
Howienica

Is there anyone that doesnt understand that the Arab Spring was always going to turn into the Islamist Nightmare?

Sardonic_Soul
Sardonic_Soul

Ahhhhh.. Obama perhaps?  Obama thinks Peace and Prosperity are the natural outcome of poverty and debt.  Just ask him about his economic policy and sit back prepared to be entranced.  He's had personal lessons from Reverend Moon.

jamis77731
jamis77731

Islamist Side:  They are angry about a movie of horrible quality, that 99.99% of Americans had never heard about, and if they had would never want to see.  Neither the American people nor the US government were behind or in support of this hateful, unthinking diatribe against Islam.  American Side:  While we are mourning the memory of the horrific attacks of 9/11, Egyptians decide this is a good time to invade sovereign American territory, that is our embassy in Egypt.  They do this with government support, and the backing of large groups of their population.   Then they have the gall to scream that the US owes them an apology, and that we should put people to death for the offense.  

My gut response is these people seem to show that their form of Islam makes people irrational, rude, uncivil, and without the ability to think.  Americans should be marching in front of the Egyptian embassy, and sending their ambassador home to protest their government's approval of the attacks.  Americans are the ones who are really affronted here, yet we act with civility. 

As a comparison, Christians in America have witnessed the production of a couple high-budget, well-produced Hollywood movies, that one could say are blasphemous to Jesus.  Those unhappy didn't run around breaking and entering, promoting mayhem, throwing rocks, burning cars, and wanting to kill people.  Protests were civil, free-speech was respected, as was freedom of conscious as people without penalty came to their own conclusions about the movies. 

The Egyptian government has backed off some, because they are afraid of losing American money.  I ask what values do we share, with Egypt, that we should give them billions of dollars?  If nothing else money should stop going to their military and be dedicated to building civil institutions and helping the poor.

Avinash Pravara
Avinash Pravara

I don't understand how could you compare the blasphemy of Jesus in a well-produced hollwood movie with the blasphemy of Mohammad in a low level documentary. If you're referring to DaVinci Code, it showed a controversial issue in a sensible way but I see no such sensibility whatsoever in that documentary. I bet your protests would turn violent if the same blasphemy about Jesus were dealt insesnsibly in a low level documentary made by some Middle East Islamist.

Sardonic_Soul
Sardonic_Soul

Good evidence their people put the trailer together, and posted it on UTUBE from Yemen as a trigger excuse.  It just so happens that several thousand angry young extremists were out strolling with their RPG's, Machine guns, and about 200,000 rounds of ammunition when the news broke, so naturally, they had to make their "voice" felt.    They will be happy to Accept our Chief Apologist's apology, but they DO require this time instead of bowing, he offer it on his knees while banging his head on the ground.  He's practicing now int he Rose Garden.  Five times a day by observing the flocks of birds who are protesting.

beaverorduck
beaverorduck

What this reveals about Egypt and other "Arab Spring" countries is that they need their dictators.  They don't have the self control to rule themselves.

Su Mu
Su Mu

Although some looks at what happened and the reaction and never have spoken about the action that caused all that. One thing to remember is that uncontrolable Anger can ignite as a result of irresponsible actions.  What would you do if someone step on your nerves.  Just a tooth nerve for example!!!

Lucia Matias
Lucia Matias

Well, that one is easy...

They got what they wanted, they went back to the stone age, they turned their back on civilization.

That's what Islam is all about: an excuse to behave in the most barbaric way and all using the excuse of religion.

Arab Spring, Meh!  This is the nuclear winter that the islamists have always wanted.

I fear for the Secularists, Christians, Women, minorities  and non-muslins living in these God forsaken countries.  

Tarek Magdy
Tarek Magdy

 Actually .. This is what ISLAMISTS are all about, not Islam.

As a Muslim living in Egypt, I refused what happened and condemned their actions.

After the news came out about capturing some of the protesters by the authority, i found out that they were paid to do this.

Who did it ?, We don't know.

Could be Salafists, could be the fallen regime, could be someone else.

But i can assure you, no true Muslim would ever attack an innocent and call it reaction to a movie.

I was truly hurt by the murder of the American Ambassador in Libya, and i pray we can get rid of these terrorists ruling our country.

I apologize for what happened in that day.

duduong
duduong

These Islamists display characteristic intolerance over dissenting opinions and bigotry against non-believers, but I wonder whether Americans would have behaved any better had a similarly insulting film been made against one of their cherished figures? Say, a movie about Jesus as a conman and the New Testament as a con job by John the Liar (a nickname given by his contemporary critics that somehow became largely forgotten over the millenniums)? Doesn't the fact that such a project has never been contemplated say something about the Western society as well?

Sardonic_Soul
Sardonic_Soul

Islamic tolerance comes from the barrel of a gun.   Always has, always will.  The Joys of the Ottoman Empire are legendary and will live forever in history.

beaverorduck
beaverorduck

You're joking, right?  Christianity is attacked all the time without the stone-age reactions that are on display in Islamic countries.

duduong
duduong

There have been a lot of attacks and mocking on the Christian churches (especially Catholic), their teaching, and even the faithful populace, but has there been mean-spirited name-calling against the central figure of the faith? The film that started the Muslim protests attacked their prophet Mohamed, who is a direct counterpart to Jesus.

Su Mu
Su Mu

Do you compare stone-age reactions with Tom cruze and other missile that have been fired on medicine factories and killing a lot of innocent civilians in Iraq, Afghanistan and many many other countries.  Look for the real Barbarian in Killing. 

Mauritius Blog List
Mauritius Blog List

Makes me wonder why the West is still poking its nose in the affairs of the Middle East ... oh wait, petrol.

Mauritius Blog List
Mauritius Blog List

Makes me wonder why the West is still poking its nose in the affairs of the Middle East ... oh wait, petrol.

karur
karur

Islamists of many shades are having a field day with the wholesale change after the Arab Spring. The West has naively believed that if they support the freedom and democracy that the Arab spring produced, they will be backing freedom against the dictatorships of the past. Little does the US/west realize that we are seen as part of the problem that the Arab spring replaced and therefore, having got rid of the tyrant, the focus is anti-west. Unfortunately, there is such deep-seated anger and distrust of the West amongst Islamic Countries that Al Queda/ Salafists and others find it easy to tap into. We are seeing the start of the 30 year war being replayed in the Islamic World

Sardonic_Soul
Sardonic_Soul

The Egyptians are not the ONLY anti West forces in action here,  Obama's Waheebocrats are equally anti west.  If they get together, maybe we can all live in the desert as Allah intended!  Certainly that's happening in California.