On the 11th of September, a group of Egyptian protesters attacked the U.S. embassy in Cairo in response to an American movie that allegedly portrayed the Prophet Muhammad as a child molester, among other things. While it remains unclear who produced and financed the film, it was reportedly created with the intention of “provoking a reaction” from the Islamic world.
As events unfolded in Egypt, the dominant Western interpretation immediately framed the event as one where al-Qaeda/Salafi/Muslim Brotherhood protesters had attacked the American embassy and hoisted the al-Qaeda flag in reaction to the film. This narrative collapsed al-Qaeda, Salafis, and the Muslim Brotherhood into one group; spread the dramatic idea that al-Qaeda was gaining ground in the Middle East; and concealed the illogical aspects of the story being told.
This narrative obscured three key points about events in Egypt that must not be forgotten: the importance of context, the irregularities within the dominant narrative, and the problematic reactions that have emerged.
Regarding context, events do not happen in a vacuum – the lead-up is almost as important as the event itself. In the case of Egypt, the protests unfolded amid an on-going revolution, the rise of a transitional government, a deepening economic crisis, a possible IMF loan to Egypt, and intensifying foreign direct investment and privatization of the country’s economy.
The economic context is particularly notable. Many Egyptians have expressed their reservations about the IMF loan and the neoliberal drive that began under Sadat and has continued with President Mohamed Morsi. Some view the loan as yet another attempt by global powers to further embed Egypt into the global economy. Others see it as a renewed attempt to strengthen privatization and weaken labour rights and labour unions in the country. Economically, then, there are a number of concerning factors, which have aggravated popular criticism and discontent with the U.S. government.
Politically, the situation in Egypt is far from stable. Tensions between the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) and newly elected President Morsi escalated recently with the resignation of several SCAF members under pressure from Morsi. The Muslim Brotherhood has also come under intense public scrutiny in the past few months, and there have been reports of growing tensions between the Brotherhood and Egypt’s emerging Salafist groups.
This multipronged power struggle informs analysis of the embassy incident. As has been pointed out, in the past the Egyptian government has used anti-Americanism to divert attention away from local politics. The key question then becomes – who gains from the current chaotic situation in Egypt? (For an excellent analysis of the different aims and motives of various Egyptian political actors, click here.)
The global, geo-political context is another important factor. Egypt is emerging from a decades-old dictatorship that consistently received funding and support from successive American administrations. The US continues to fund the Egyptian military, and plays a vital role in Egyptian affairs. The recent visit by an American delegation aiming to increase foreign investment in the country is yet another example of the United States’ continuing role in Egyptian economic and political affairs. The embassy attack was not simply “against America” but rather was against intervention in Egyptian affairs by a U.S. government trying to preserve its own strategic and geopolitical interests.
As for the irregularities in the dominant Western narrative, there are specific details of the event that are notable. The American embassy in Cairo is arguably one of the most secure buildings in the country, extremely well protected by both American and Egyptian personnel. It is impossible to approach the building without being questioned or stopped. On 9/11, of all days, one would expect security to be even tighter than usual. It is, therefore, quite surprising that protesters managed to approach the embassy with relative ease, and to hoist a black flag commonly used by political Islamist groups on the embassy grounds.
In addition, the organized nature of the protest is quite unique, particularly since it was framed as a spontaneous reaction to the movie. This further points to political motives behind the demonstrations. It is quite possible that the Salafis used the film as a pretext to protest against broader issues, such as the U.S. role in Egypt, the on going financial and business deals between Egypt and the IMF, and the side-lining of the Salafis in Egypt’s political process.
Despite the media reports, it seems unlikely that al-Qaeda was involved in the protests. The media tendency of collapsing all Islamists into one category and labeling it al-Qaeda is baseless and promotes hysteria. While there are alleged links between the Salafis and the Wahhabis in Saudi Arabia, the relationship between Egypt’s Salafis and al-Qaeda has yet to be proven.
Finally, in terms of problematic reactions, many international commentators are now focusing on how the tragic events in Egypt and Libya will affect the US presidential election. By contrast, these events should have sparked deep discussion about the role of the United States in the Middle East. The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, support for the Israeli occupation in Palestine, the constant drone attacks on civilian populations in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia, and U.S. support for a number of dictators in the region are all factors that should have been analyzed in response to the embassy demonstration.
It is also an opportunity for the United States to carefully examine the role it would like to play in the new Middle East going forward. The region has changed immensely since the uprisings that began in December 2010. Until the United States accepts and understands these changes as a fait accompli, its missteps in the region will continue, with disastrous result.
There is need for introspection on the Egyptian side as well. Reactions to a movie that insults the Prophet need not include violence, as it did in the case of Libya where members of the US diplomatic staff were killed. The decision on the part of many Egyptians to immediately shift blame onto the Coptic diaspora (who were rumoured to have made the movie) was also problematic and increased already existing interreligious tensions in the country. Shifting blame onto the Coptic community is yet another tactic commonly used by the regime to divert attention away from local politics.
Perhaps the most worrying of all, however, has been the lack of response from Morsi or the Egyptian government. This is surprising considering the critical period Egypt currently faces, particularly economically. While the new Libyan government acted swiftly to condemn the embassy attacks, the Muslim Brotherhood appear to have called for more protests against the movie.
As emerging reports have demonstrated, the movie in question is of dubious origins. It appears the actors were scammed into thinking they were making a simple period film about life in Egypt 2000 years ago, with no connection to Islam or the Prophet Muhammad. These details make the events in Egypt that much more tragic and unnecessary. Nevertheless, it is important to realize that these events are not just about the movie. They are also reflective of continuing U.S. intervention in the economic and political realities of Egyptian society, and the on-going transitional processes underway in the country.
* Sara Salem is an Egyptian PhD student at the Institute of Social Studies in the Netherlands. Her interests include political economy, geopolitics, feminism, post-colonial theory, and the Middle East. She can be found on Twitter @saramsalem.