Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Cairo and Benghazi

Yesterday saw attacks on U.S. diplomatic missions in Cairo and Benghazi, leading to the death of the U.S. ambassador to Libya and several others.  These assaults, which were motivated by an anti-Islamic film produced by a California-based anti-Islam activist, were carried out by crowds of salafis estimated in the very low four digits by American news sources.  Juan Cole provides some context:
"One way the fundamentalist vigilantes can hope to combat their marginalization and political irrelevance in the wake of the Arab Spring is to manufacture a controversy that forces people to side with them. I suspect that is what they were doing in Egypt and Libya, in front of the US embassy in Cairo and at the rump consulate in Benghazi.
"That the jihadis could not get bigger crowds up for their demonstrations suggests that they are seen as crackpots by their neighbors. In Libya, their actions may be a catalyst to the new prime minister, to be named today, to spearhead a concerted effort to build new police and army forces on a faster timetable than had the transitional national council. Secular and nationalist Libyans have already announced a peaceful demonstration against the violence at Martyrs’ Square in Benghazi for Wednesday afternoon."
Marc Lynch has more about the reaction in Libya, where there are lots of weapons floating around in the aftermath of the civil war:
"But across the Libyan political spectrum there has been an immediate rush of condemnation of the attacks and deep empathy with the American victims.  Mohammed al-Magariaf, president of Libya's National Council, quickly declared that "in the strongest possible words, in all languages, we condemn, reject, and denounce what happened in Benghazi yesterday in the assault on the US Consulate."  Deputy Prime Minister Mustafa Abu Shagur said "I condemn these barbaric acts in the strongest possible terms. This is an attack on America, Libya and free people everywhere." Prime Minister Abd al-Rahim al-Keib offered similar strong condemnation.  Libyan officials have promised to bring those responsible for the killings to justice...Numerous protests have been announced for the next few days against the attackers."
Egypt's government has been silent, but their security forces are in action:
"Security forces in Cairo arrested Wednesday four protesters accused of storming the US embassy during demonstrations decrying an American movie deemed insulting to the Prophet Mohamed. State-run MENA news agency said that police referred those arrested to the Qasr al-Nil prosecutor’s office for investigations. It added that the police are still searching for other suspects in the case...
"Seven armored vehicles were stationed along Simon Bolivar Street leading to the embassy as well as behind the building, while 25 Central Security vehicles guarded the main gate Wednesday."
As tragic as these events are, one key right now is simply not to overreact.  I think the salafis matter far more to Egypt's political system than Juan Cole does, but he's right that this was almost certainly about certain street preachers looking to boost their profiles.  When someone is craving lots of attention so as to present themselves a leader in a clash of civilizations, it's good for their targets to not give them what they want while their prospective recruits in their own societies work to eliminate them.  This seems to be happening in Libya, and let's hope it does in Egypt, as well.

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