Muslim outrage spreads across Arab world
CAIRO — A once-obscure anti-Islam video continued to provoke outrage in the Arab world on Friday, with violent demonstrations spreading to more than 20 Arab nations.
At least four deaths resulted from clashes outside U.S. and other embassies in several Arab capitals.
Egyptians — the first to protest the mysterious video — massed for a fourth day here. Held back from the U.S. Embassy by a stone street barricade, they fought with Egyptian police firing hundreds of volleys of tear gas.
Egyptian media reported that a United Nations peacekeeping base in Egypt's Sinai peninsula was attacked by Bedouin tribesmen, who have clashed in recent months with Egyptian soldiers. A watchtower was torched, and three peacekeepers — two Colombians and an Egyptian — were injured, according to reports.
The unrest erupted on Tuesday when an Egyptian mob assaulted the U.S. Embassy, painting anti-American and pro-al-Qaida graffiti on walls and replacing the American flag with an al-Qaida banner.
Hours later, U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three embassy staffers were slain during a protest at the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya.
U.S. and Libyan officials believe Islamist terrorists executed that attack, perhaps to mark the 11th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks on U.S. soil. Libyan authorities have arrested four suspects.
The United States sent additional Marine Corps guards to Libya, ordered warships into the area and reportedly increased unmanned aerial surveillance flights across the region.
On Friday, protesters torched three American restaurant franchises in Tripoli, Lebanon, while a mob broke through a security fence and into outbuildings at the U.S. Embassy in Sana'a, Yemen.
Despite the violence spreading from North Africa to Indonesia, some analysts have noted that the mobs are not extraordinarily large by regional standards.
Egypt's ruling Muslim Brotherhood at first called for nationwide protests for Friday, then urged its supporters to refrain from marching or attacking foreign embassies.
Egyptian President Mohamed Morsy waited for more than 24 hours before issuing a tepid initial response to the unrest, never mentioning the U.S. Embassy.
In his bid to head off the violence on Friday, Morsy said, “It is required by our religion to protect our guests and their homes and places of work.”
He called the killing of Stevens unacceptable in Islam.
“To God, attacking a person is bigger than an attack on the Kaaba,” he said, referring to Islam's holiest site in Mecca.
The unrest here is especially significant: As the most populous Arab nation, Egypt has enormous political influence regionally. It also is widely known as America's No. 1 Arab ally, pocketing more than $1.3 billion annually in U.S. aid.
Several hundred demonstrated in Cairo's Tahrir Square, where crowds numbering in the hundreds of thousands helped depose Hosni Mubarak in 2011. Some threatened foreign journalists, and one man waved a photograph of slain al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden.
Just blocks away near the U.S. Embassy, hundreds of mostly young men massed and fought ongoing battles with Egyptian security forces.
“Maybe this popular pressure will make the government react,” said Muhammed Abdullah, a bearded protester holding a sign that read, “The people want to expel the U.S. ambassador.”
Protesters and police heaved rocks at each other over the hastily built barricade blocking the street to the embassy. Police sprayed high-pressure water at men scaling the wall and fired thick clouds of tear gas.
“I am here to defend the Prophet Muhammad because they are insulting him!” shouted Mahmoud Abdel Azziz, a government worker.
He called the Internet video “a huge insult to Islam.” Yet like many protesters, he admitted he has not seen it and did not know that U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had denounced it.
“We will not forgive what has happened,” said fellow government worker Eid Muhammed. “I want this film to be pulled off the Internet and for the U.S. Congress to draft a law to punish those who insult religion.”
Pointing to boys fighting with police, he added: “Our religion is not like this, but you made us do this.”
“Obama, we have more Osamas!” shouted another man.
At midday, protesters tried to outflank security forces to reach the U.S. Embassy, provoking clashes along the Nile's corniche. Police fired volleys of tear gas, forcing the nearby Semiramis Intercontinental Hotel and Shepherd Hotel to lock down.
“I am here to make my prophet victorious,” said Muhammed Nasoud, a medical lab worker. “We love everyone, but the American administration encouraged this film. That shouldn't be shown – this is not freedom!” Then he raced away as police fired more tear gas.
Betsy Hiel is the Tribune-Review's foreign correspondent. Email her at email@example.com.