Furor in Khartoum: The Siege of the Western Embassies

Muslim anger over the controversial anti-Muhammad video clip spread to Sudan. with a violent focus on the Germans

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Smoke billows from the U.S. embassy in the Sudanese capital Khartoum during a protest against a film mocking Islam on Sept. 14, 2012.

Enraged by Innocence of Muslims, an amateur film mocking the Prophet Muhammad, thousands of protestors took to the streets of Khartoum, Sudan on Friday after weekly prayers to demand the United States ban the film. They started by demonstrating outside the German and British embassies in downtown Khartoum. The protestors then stormed the compound of the German embassy and tore down flags to replace them with Islamic banners, smashed windows, and set parts of the embassy on fire.

Following the burning of the German embassy, protestors blocked the road to deny access to firemen, according to local journalists. They then made their way to the U.S. embassy down the street, where security forces fired shots to repel protesters. At least five people died during protests — state media claims two of these fatalities were due to a car crash — and dozens were injured.

While initial reports suggested that there was a widespread breach of the U.S. embassy perimeter, this was not the case. Some U.S. government property was damaged. But U.S. officials maintained control of the embassy compound and accounted for all mission personnel. As it was Friday, the weekend in the region, Western embassy staff were not on their compounds, and most embassies had already increased security following protests across the region on Wednesday.

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

The unrest began following the broadcasting of the controversial film on an Egyptian talk show. Afterwards, protestors took to the streets in Cairo, and stormed the US embassy. Videos of protesters tearing down the U.S. flag quickly went viral. Soon afterward, protestors stormed the U.S. consulate in Benghazi leading to the death of U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other employees. On Thursday, the protests spread to Yemen, where four people were killed. Protests continued in Egypt and ignited across the region, and beyond.

Many youth were fired up by images beamed through the region and calls from religious leaders demanding the film be banned. “We felt it was the right thing to do. Our religion cannot continue to be insulted by the U.S. and Western countries,” Abdalla Hassan, a young student who participated in the protests told TIME by phone.

However, one young activist involved in the anti-government protests in July says many youth participated in the protests yesterday without knowing what they were doing. “They don’t understand freedom of speech or how they are being manipulated by religious leaders,” said Taha , who declined to provide his last name. “They feel so frustrated from not being able to express  themselves and after they were crushed in July this was an opportunity to do something.” He added that while the state media said two people were killed in a car crash, they were actually run over by police vehicles. “After this happened, the protestors started shouting ‘down with the regime,” he said.

(MORE: Can the U.S. Stop the Wave of Muslim Protests Targeting Its Embassies?)

When TIME asked one member of the ‘Sudan Change Now’ (SCN) opposition group, highly active in the July anti-government protests, whether he participated in the protests yesterday he laughed down the phone. “There is no way I would participate in such nonsense,” he told TIME on condition of anonymity. “There are much bigger problems in our country than a stupid film. This will only distract attention from the real problems at hand like unemployment and political oppression.”

On Friday SCN released a statement condemning the film and the ensuing violence. In the statement it condemned “any disrespect to all religions and denounced the producers and directors of this film and everyone involved in any way in its publication and promotion.” However, the group also condemned “the violence and destruction as unacceptable. Uncivilized means of expressing opinions against this film and their use represents a crime against the entire community.”

Another group, the Islamist Popular Congress Party (PCP), led by Hassan Al-Turabi, also blamed the violence on the authorities.  “We hold the authorities responsible for what happened and they have to protect diplomatic missions and their staff from the aggression of those who offend Islam by such kind of actions,” the PCP statement said.

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SCN blamed the violence on the “policies of purposeful misinformation and propaganda.” The group accused El Teyeb Mustafa, leader of the far-right Just Peace Forum (JPF) and owner of the group’s Al-Intibaha newspaper, for instigating the protesters to come out in front of the embassies. SCN also  raised suspicions regarding the level of force used outside the U.S. embassy compared to constraint used at the German embassy when was set on fire. “Police clearly showed no efforts then to control the situation,” the group said.

It is believed that the anti-Islamic activities of the German Kelin Pro NRW far-right political party, whose members frequently hold demonstrations and display cartoons of Mohammed, have long enraged Islamists in Khartoum. Sudan’s foreign ministry had previously criticized Germany for allowing far right demonstrations to take place. The ministry also blamed Chancellor Angela Merkel for giving away an award to the Danish cartoonist who depicted the Prophet.

Earlier in the day, the U.S. and German ambassadors had been summoned by the foreign ministry to discuss the film. “In our opinion, freedom of speech has limits and when it touches our Islamic sanctities and figures it becomes unacceptable” Undersecretary Rahmat Allah Mohammed Osman told state media.

For many of the diplomatic residents living in Khartoum security has always been an issue, but on Friday concerns reached a boiling point. “Sudan has always been somewhat of a difficult posting, with constant security issues,” one diplomat told TIME. “Now we’re now going to face an even more strict regime of security procedures.” His fears were confirmed by a U.S. official who told the Associated Press a marine unit will be heading to Khartoum to boost security.

(PHOTOS: Displaced by War, Sudanese Refugees Face Worsening Crisis)

Wael Saifuddin Ali, a media activist in Khartoum, said he was concerned for the safety of westerners who he felt were at danger of violence from ignorant youth. “Media has an important and very powerful role to play and should be educating people and especially the Sudanese youth that violence is not the way ahead,” Ali told TIME. “Instead, we don’t have such educational media.”

It was through the state media that the hardline Sheikh Mohammed Dschisuli had apparently called on the public to make a mass demonstration outside embassies.

In response to the demonstrations, U.S. Vice President Joe Biden called Sudan’s counterpart, Ali Osman Taha, to express concern over the security of the U.S. embassy in Khartoum. “Vice President Biden reaffirmed the responsibility of the government of Sudan to protect diplomatic facilities and stressed the need for the government of Sudan to ensure the protection of diplomats in Khartoum,” read a press statement.  Germany has closed all embassies in the region as well as in Afghanistan and Pakistan. German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle said security had been increased at certain embassies with additional security officers being deployed.

On Saturday morning local sources reported that all embassies were clear of protestors but that demonstrations were expected again on Sunday following public calls to resume protests. “While yesterday might have been the worst we will face, we are very far from in the clear,” one diplomat warned.

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