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 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.

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