Reading the tea leaves of the Libya congressional hearings

Remarks from witnesses called for the Congressional hearing over the Benghazi attacks last month seem to indicate that there was no mass protest against “Innocence of Muslims” concurrent with the attacks. In the NYT:

[T]he new account provided by the State Department made no mention of a protest. In this account, Mr. Stevens met with a Turkish diplomat during the day of the attack and then escorted him to the main gate of the mission around 8:30 p.m. At that time, there were no demonstrations and the situation appeared calm.

Congressional Republicans quickly seized on the fact that the State Department downgraded security in Benghazi despite the ratcheting up of warnings about the security threat to US nationals in the country ahead of 9/11/12 (Democrats struck back that it was Congressional Republicans who cut funding for such security in the first place).

Beyond these Beltway-minded hearings, though, that will focus on (and politicize) these failures, the Libyan response to the attacks gives me more hope, rather than less, that the country is at the very least capable of confronting the militias in the long run. What is still of great concern is where the country will go next now that tensions over the militias are back to the fore, and the US enters an election year with a bone to pick over the North African nation.

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Blowback from Egypt's released jihadist militants?

This is an important story by Siobhan Gorman and Matt Bradley in the Wall Street Journal:

The revolutions that swept the Middle East and North Africa also emptied prisons of militants, a problem now emerging as a potential new terrorist threat.

Fighters linked to one freed militant, Muhammad Jamal Abu Ahmad, took part in the Sept. 11 attack on U.S. diplomatic outposts in Libya that killed four Americans, U.S. officials believe based on initial reports. Intelligence reports suggest that some of the attackers trained at camps he established in the Libyan Desert, a former U.S. official said.

Western officials say Mr. Ahmad has petitioned the chief of al Qaeda, to whom he has long ties, for permission to launch an al Qaeda affiliate and has secured financing from al Qaeda's Yemeni wing.

U.S. spy agencies have been tracking Mr. Ahmad's activities for several months. The Benghazi attacks gave a major boost to his prominence in their eyes.

Mr. Ahmad, although believed to be one of the most potent of the new militant operatives emerging from the chaos of the Arab Spring, isn't the only one, according to Western officials. They say others are also trying to exploit weaknesses in newly established governments and develop a capacity for strikes that could go well beyond recent violent protests in Libya, Egypt and elsewhere.

Since the fall of Mubarak, in Egypt alone dozens of former Islamist militants have been released, both by the SCAF and later by President Mohammed Morsi.

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Why Do Americans Believe in Muslim Rage?

Why Do Americans Believe in Muslim Rage? : The New Yorker

Steve Coll:

Last week, Newsweek launched a Twitter hash tag, #MuslimRage, to spur chatter about its cover story. What followed may constitute the most inspiring revolt yet of new media against old. Scores of English-speaking Muslim Twitter users, offended by the magazine’s clichéd imagery, hijacked (“pun intended,” one wrote) the online forum to post jokes about Muslim rage in the real world. One lamented a shortage of “Sharia Garcia” ice cream. A woman in a head scarf wrote, “I’m having such a good hair day. No one even knows.” Another, much re-tweeted entry read, “Lost your kid Jihad at the airport. Can’t yell for him.” We await an explication of the roots of Muslim irony

Certainly the best thing to have come out of this entire fiasco.

Islam and the protests: Rage, but also self-criticism

Islam and the protests: Rage, but also self-criticism

The Economist's take on the embassy riots:

Yet the debate has also sharpened criticism of religion’s intrusion into politics. To expose the pitfalls of Egypt’s blasphemy laws, for instance, activists have filed suits against a sheikh who angered Egyptian Christians by publicly burning a bible in response to the anti-Muslim film clip. Hassan Nasrallah, the charismatic leader of Hizbullah, Lebanon’s Shia party-cum-militia, provoked an angry backlash by staging a giant rally to protest against the film. Critics not only charged him with manipulating the incident to ingratiate himself with Sunni Muslims, among whom Mr Nasrallah’s star has waned with the region-wide rise of sectarian animosity. They called him a hypocrite for condemning America as a shielder of blasphemers while ignoring the offences to God committed by his ally, Syria’s regime. Its soldiers have destroyed mosques and, by the evidence of YouTube footage, forced prisoners to say, “There is no God but Bashar Assad”.

In Latitude: Cairo's Walls of Shame

In Cairo, Mixed Feelings About 'Innocence of Muslims' -

I have a short comment on the IHT blog Latitude. Here's the conclusion:

But the protests also highlighted more important problems. Such as why the police were not able to contain the rioters, or what impact the protests might have on sectarian relations in Egypt: the film’s alleged producer is a Coptic émigré from Egypt. He and several other exiled Egyptians — as well as Terry Jones, the Florida fundamentalist said to have been consulted in the making of the film — face arrest should they come here. (One poor soul, Albier Saber, a Copt, was taken into custody merely for linking to the YouTube trailer on his Facebook account.)

And there’s the matter of the double standard that is created when a sheikh who burned a Bible — rather perplexingly, since Muslims consider it a holy book — is free whereas Christians who insult Islam face immediate backlash.

Even as the anger against America dies down, the underlying tension stirred up by this affair may have ongoing consequences in Egypt — not least because it will boost the case of the Islamists who want to put a ban on blasphemy at the heart of the constitution currently being drafted.

"Everywhere the Salafis are pushing"

"Everywhere the Salafis are pushing"

Good comments by Tarek Ramadan on the struggle for who's going to be the biggest defender of Islam:

And the second thing that we have to say—and this is important because you were talking about Mohamed Morsi and people, the Islamists in Muslim-majority countries—there is something which is going to be one of the main challenges in the Muslim world today, in the Muslim-majority countries in the Arab world, is the religious credibility. How are you going to react to what is said about Islam? So, by touching the prophet of Islam, the reaction should be, who is going to be the guardian? And you can see today that the Muslim Brotherhood are in a situation where the Salafis, then the literalists, are pushing. And they were in Libya, they were in Egypt, they are now in Yemen. So, everywhere the Salafi are pushing by saying, "We are the guardian, and we are resisting any kind of relationship to the West or provocation coming from the West."

Cairo Protests: What They Reveal About Egypt Without Mubarak

Cairo Protests: What They Reveal About Egypt Without Mubarak | World |

From a really great TIME piece by Ashraf Khalil :

Ultraconservative Salafist Muslims and other Islamist factions essentially started this fight when—bolstered by several inflammatory television sheikhs—they marshaled a large  protest outside the embassy gates on Tuesday evening, coinciding with the anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks on the U.S.. But having sparked the protests, the Islamists seem to have almost immediately lost control.

By Wednesday evening the clashes had begun—often despite the best efforts of some of the Islamist groups on the scene. On Thursday, I witnessed this dynamic in action as a temporary peace between police and protestors dramatically broke down.

A group of young men suddenly resumed throwing rocks at the police—who largely huddled behind a phalanx of plexiglass shields and made no offensive moves at first.  Into this maelstrom stepped an incredibly brave group of bearded men—and one woman wearing the full Saudi-style niqab. Facing down a hail of rocks and yelling for calm, they essentially acted as voluntary human shields for the police. (In a slightly humorous side-drama, the Islamist men repeatedly kept dragging the woman away and yelling at her to stay on the sidelines for her own safety.)

Read the whole thing.

US media angrily marvels at the lack of Muslim gratitude

US media angrily marvels at the lack of Muslim gratitude

Gleen Greenwald in the Guardian:

Given the history of the US in Egypt, both long-term and very recent, it takes an extraordinary degree of self-delusion and propaganda to depict Egyptian anger toward the US as "ironic" on the ground that it was the US who freed them and "allowed" them the right to protest. But that is precisely the theme being propagated by most US media outlets.

He cites examples, too. 

Another depressing aspect of this affair: seeing the same kind of articles pop up about "Muslim rage" as after 9/11. I don't know about all the countries where the protests took place, but in may Arab countries a small number of protestors took part. The idea of a spontaneous surge of anger does a big disservice to understanding what happened, especially when the initial events (Egypt/Libya) are likely to have been planned by small fringe groups and then widened as they were relayed by the Salafi international where local allies of that current stirred up more protests. That's the interesting story, even if does not excuse the very real dysfunction that causes many to go apoplectic (without attending protests) about this stupid trailer of a movie that might not even exist and the security lapses that occurred — not surprising in Libya, perhaps, but perplexing in Egypt and Tunisia.

Update: Bassam Haddad comments rather nicely on this: "Was the Arab Spring Really Worth It?": The Fascinating Arrogance of Power.

That line in between the quotation marks was on CNN. What morons.

A few words on embassy riots

I've had a couple of very busy days here and am about to return to Cairo after a couple of months of absence. Id did write this op-ed for The National which captures some of my initial thoughts about what I'm calling, for shorthand, the embassy riots. Needless to say I find these very depressing, and as my thinking evolves about them (being quite far away from them at the moment) I am not satisfied that I know enough about the evolution of the protests — how they started, who initiated them, etc. 

It appears very likely that the Benghazi attack that killed US diplomats was a pre-planned attack by a group probably trying to avenge the death of Sheikh al-Libi, an al-Qaeda leader. And it seems that the initial Egyptian protests were in good part due to a call by a small Salafi group led by Mohammed Zawahri (Ayman's brother) and a few fellow travellers, and timed for the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. That these protests expanded and got out of hand speaks volumes of the complicated, chaotic situation in Egypt. (I'll pass on the government's reaction, or lack thereof, for now.) I think it is important to see who involved in getting the ball rolling — and particularly the international network of Islamist activists who amplify and spread this manufactured outrage (I say manufactured because why now and not, say, at the time of the scandal over the desecreation of Quran by US soldiers in Afghanistan or other incidents?)

I'll write more in the next few days, but here is an excerpt from The National op-ed:

Islamist movements (even if they are not alone in this) have shown that they excel in using an insult (real or perceived) as part of their culture wars: the tactic is to portray themselves as the sole defenders of the faith. In this week's case, they chose to do so even though the film in question was released only online and no one would have heard of it or paid attention to it without their efforts.

This, perhaps, is what has changed between the 1988 Rushdie fatwa and more recent examples of Islamist outrage: thanks to the internet, a regional Danish newspaper or an amateur film have become targets just as much as a celebrated, best-selling novelist.

Not that these protests, riots and killings are entirely about insults anyway: that the protesters chose to target US embassies has as much to do with other grievances (US-led wars, support for Israel, etc) and the convenience of having a prominent address, since protests outside the filmmaker's house, say, are out of the question.

One can certainly question why protest organisers chose the embassies, as if the US government was responsible for a film made by one of its citizens. And why do organisers sometimes lie, as when Nader Bakkar - who speaks for Egypt's Salafi Nour Party, a partner with President Mohammed Morsi's party - told Al Jazeera Mubasher that the film had been broadcast on US channels?

And why, despite the risks of escalation made obvious by the attack that killed four American diplomats in Benghazi, did the Muslim Brotherhood's secretary general, Mahmoud Ghozlan, call for new protests after Friday prayers?