Egypt Fans the Flames

Why Morsi Exploited the Muhammad Film -- and Why that Was a Bad Move

Click to view an essay in photos about the attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi. (Esam Al-Fetori / Courtesy Reuters)

The storming of the U.S. consulate in Benghazi on Tuesday echoed events following the 2005 Danish publication of cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad that led to widespread protest in 2006 and assaults on Danish embassies around the world. Today, Egypt's president, Mohamed Morsi, and his government are playing the same role that his predecessor Hosni Mubarak did then: provoking protest to consolidate power.

The chaos on Tuesday in Benghazi that resulted in the death of the U.S. ambassador to Libya, J. Christopher Stevens, was set in motion the Sunday before when Ali Gomaa, the grand mufti of Egypt, spoke out against a film that he condemned as "offensive to all Muslims." He claimed that it was produced by "some extremist Copts" living in the United States. Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood-led government followed Gomaa's lead and demanded a public apology and criminal prosecution of the filmmakers. On Tuesday, as events unfolded in Benghazi, 3,000 demonstrators besieged the U.S. embassy in Cairo. An armed mob attacked the U.S. consulate in Benghazi and killed Stevens and three other U.S. officials. It remains unclear who exactly planned the Libya strike, but reports point to Ansar al-Sharia (Supporters of the Islamic Law), a group connected to al Qaeda.

The film in question, it turns out, is little more than an amateur production made up of sophomoric sacrilegious sketches of the Prophet Muhammad taken from the Internet. It remains unclear who produced the dubious film, but it appears not to have been Egyptian Copts living in the United States. A trailer for the production was posted on YouTube in July, but apparently came to the attention of Egyptian authorities only after a murky Twitter campaign promoted it, with backing from a pastor in Gainesville, Florida, Terry Jones, who got everyone's attention in 2010 for his plans to burn copies of the Koran in a bonfire.

This feels very much like a sequel to 2006, when 12 cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad that had been published by the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten in 2005 sparked a public uproar. Those cartoons, too, had gone relatively unnoticed when they were first published. But when mysterious text messages and posts in Internet chat rooms alerted Muslims to the insult they had suffered and the Egyptian government started publicizing the Danes' sacrilege, people started to pay attention. And even then, the streets remained calm until Gomaa condemned the cartoons and encouraged denunciations during Friday prayers across the Middle East. Over three weeks, mobs burned Danish embassies and consulates to the ground. Two years later, al Qaeda bombed the Danish embassy in Islamabad, leaving eight people dead.

In 2008, I traveled to Cairo to investigate why the Egyptian government had decided to spearhead an international campaign against the Danish cartoons. Some of those with whom I talked pointed their fingers in the air and said, vaguely, "This came from the top." Others were willing to be more specific. They explained that Hosni Mubarak, who was president at the time, must have been involved.

To my great puzzlement, Egyptian diplomats, starting with Amr Moussa, who was then the secretary-general of the Arab League, refused to speak to me about the Danes. Instead, Moussa and his colleagues in the Foreign Ministry began every sentence with "But the Americans must understand," after which they would go on to explain why U.S. pressure to allow the Muslim Brotherhood to compete in free elections would lead to chaos. Presumably, they meant to imply that the Muslim Brotherhood was behind the rioting.

In fact, those who suspected Mubarak were right. The objective of his regime's campaign against the Danish cartoons was twofold. First, the cartoons were a convenient way to illustrate the ills of an unfettered media. Buoyed by the cartoon riots, the Mubarak regime was able to push a new media charter through the Arab League in 2008. It restricted satellite television in general and al Jazeera in particular.

Second, the violent and apparently religious protest that followed the publication of the cartoons was a way to demonstrate to the Americans that the Muslim Brotherhood was dangerous. As Moussa told me, the Egyptian government wanted to teach the West a lesson. "We have to be treated equally," he complained, objecting to European and U.S. efforts to compel Egypt to sign a new charter for granting civil society groups freedom to operate outside of Mubarak's control.

The United States seemed to learn the lesson Mubarak intended. In 2008, the leader undid some reforms that had been introduced in 2005 in response to the "freedom agenda," U.S. President George W. Bush's ill-fated attempt to change the Middle East through elections. The move was met with only muted criticism from the United States.

For its part, the Muslim Brotherhood was eager to make sure that I understood that it was not responsible for the protests. Essam el-Erian, then a member of the Brotherhood's Guidance Bureau known to belong to its moderate wing, had just been released from prison when I met with him in his downtown Cairo office. He looked pale and was wearing ill-fitting glasses and teeth. He did not know much about the history of the cartoons but impressed upon me that, although the Brotherhood was offended by Islamophobic portrayals of the Prophet, it also understood that different countries have different traditions. He regarded protests against cartoons as a distraction from the real task of reform. He was suspicious that Mubarak was using the Danish cartoons to suppress the Brotherhood. Today, el-Erian is a Morsi adviser and the acting chairman of the new Muslim Brotherhood party, the Freedom and Justice Party, which controls Egypt's parliament.

My meeting with Khaled Hamza, who was then the editor of the Brotherhood's recently launched English-language Web site, was even more interesting. We met after secretly coordinating an appointment at the Starbucks in a suburban Egyptian mall. Throughout the meeting, Hamza prodded me to explain this "freedom of speech" thing that was so important to those defending the Danish newspaper. That started a discussion of how to establish the legal meaning of blasphemy in multi-religious open societies.

The day after our meeting, the security services came for Hamza. He remained in prison for eight months. Joining a chorus of liberals in Europe and the United States who had decided that working with the Muslim Brotherhood was the only way forward, in February 2008 Marc Lynch wrote on his blog: "Khaled, aside from being a wonderful person, has been a leading voice for moderation and engagement." Eventually, of course, Hamza was freed and the Muslim Brotherhood got what it had long advocated: real elections and the freedom to practice Islam as the conservatives desired. The Brothers did not spearhead the revolution but were its beneficiaries. In June, Brotherhood officials moved into Mubarak's old offices.

But in the past week, ironically, the Brotherhood has continued to follow the old Mubarak playbook. Hours after the attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, the Muslim Brotherhood posted that it "strongly condemn[s] the deadly attack ... and the tragic loss of life. We urge restraint as people peacefully protest and express their anger." Even while condemning the attacks, however, the Brotherhood called for mass protests at mosques across Egypt on Friday, virtually guaranteeing that the unrest will spread.

The Muslim Brotherhood's sponsorship of the film protests might be an ill-advised attempt at the diversionary politics Mubarak was a master of, but the costs are high. If Egypt's ultra-Salafists take a harder line on the film or manage to co-opt the protests, Morsi could easily lose ground to them. It is a gamble. The ultra-conservative salafist Nour Party, the second-largest in the new parliament, has stepped up their campaign to turn Egypt's religious authorities into a new Supreme Court and derailed the work of the constituent assembly writing a new constitution.

In Egypt, the film is now being portrayed as the work of Jews and extremist Christians, but no one really knows. It hardly matters. Not everything on the Internet is what it appears to be. The Internet grants people the freedom to say silly things, including things that are insulting to Muslims, and can be exploited for political gain. But that goes both ways. It was not so long ago, after all, that YouTube postings of Mubarak's thugs shooting young demonstrators in the back helped to bring down a regime that Morsi and the Brotherhood had fought for decades to end. If only to set himself apart from the old regime, Morsi should take responsibility for rousing misplaced public anger and turning a non-event on the Internet into a real-world catastrophe.

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