A new wave of anti-American protests erupted across the Muslim world Friday, as Egypt’s recently elected government and its counterparts elsewhere struggled to contain anger sparked by a movie that mocks the prophet Muhammad and encouraged by radical Islamists..
Protesters in Tunis broke into the U.S. Embassy compound and set fire to cars in the parking lot before being pushed out by police and special forces, who also confronted stone-throwing crowds with tear gas and gunfire. Police in Khartoum, the Sudanese capital, fired on protesters trying to scale the walls of the embassy there. And security forces in the Yemeni capital, Sanaa, fired guns in the air to keep protesters away from that city’s U.S. Embassy, a day after its compound was broken into and looted.
In Tripoli, Lebanon, demonstrators set fire to a KFC restaurant and a Hardee’s. Security forces opened fire,killing at least one person. Twenty-five people were injured in clashes, most of them police.
Anti-U.S. demonstrations were also underway in Afghanistan, Bahrain, East Jerusalem, Britain, Indonesia, Iraq, Iran, Malaysia, Pakistan, Qatar, Syria, Turkey and the West Bank, with many protesters chanting religious slogans and railing against the denigration of Islam in the obscure, apparently made-in-America film.
In Washington,President Obama informed leaders of the House and Senate in a letter Friday that U.S. security forces have been sent to Libya and Yemen to protect Americans in response to attacks on U.S. diplomatic missions in those countries. He said the security forces from the U.S. Africa Command “are equipped for combat,” although their purpose is solely to protect American citizens and property. The forces will remain in Libya and Yemen until they are no longer needed, Obama wrote.
In Egypt — a key player in the Arab world and longtime U.S. partner, where the overthrow of strongman Hosni Mubarak in 2011 led to the democratic election of President Mohamed Morsi— the challenge of maintaining a good relationship with Washington while still addressing public outrage over the incendiary video was clearly on display.
Thousands gathered in Tahrir Square, 350 yards from the fortress-like U.S. Embassy breached earlier this week. Security forces constructed a massive concrete wall to block off one access road to the embassy, witnesses said, and skirmished with demonstrators who arrived in a slow stream after midday prayers.
The government appealed for calm, with Mursi — who had received a stern telephone call from President Obama Wednesday night — appearing on state television to call for restraint. State television also repeatedly played a Thursday message from Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, in which she called the low-budget anti-Muslim video “disgusting and reprehensible.”
The powerful Muslim Brotherhood organization, with which Mursi is affiliated, sent out an English-language tweet at 11:53 a.m. local time saying that it “cancels Friday’s nationwide protests, announces it will be present only in #Tahrir, for symbolic protest against the movie.”
But Mahmoud Hussein, the organization’s secretary general, dispatched an Arabic-language statement less than an hour later, at 12:12 p.m., calling for protests “in front of the mosques of the whole country . . . to show the whole Egyptian people’s anger.”
Reflecting worry from influential Egyptian political and clerical leaders that the tone of demonstrations had gotten too heated, the ultraconservative Nour political party said Thursday that Friday’s demonstrations should take place away from embassies, and it condemned both violence and the video.
“We appreciate and value . . . the statement from the American embassy that condemned the insult to Islam and its prophets,” the party said in a statement.
In the end, the relatively low turnout in Cairo, where few protesters in Tahrir Square identified themselves with the Muslim Brotherhood, may have reflected a successful call for restraint from the country’s leaders, although the crowd continued to fluctuate as night fell on the city.
But many who turned out illustrated the challenges that Mursi faces.
“Mursi’s stance was halfway there,” said Roshy Kamel, 34, who had a thick beard typical of conservative Muslims. “We need him to suspend Egyptian-American relations and expel the American ambassador. We need him to show we are strong.”
It was impossible to know how many of thousands of demonstrators who filled streets outside U.S. outposts were actually motivated by reports about the movie — which was made under mysterious circumstances, apparently by individuals in California — and how many were venting anger at the United States for other reasons. A short clip of the film has been circulated on the Internet for weeks, but apparently did not generate much attention until it was subtitled in Arabic and sent to Egyptian journalists.
But the vehemence and volatile nature of the protests in capital after capital — images of which were broadcast around the globe almost instantly via blogs, social media networks and cable news stations — were unmistakable.
In Khartoum, about 5,000 demonstrators gathered at the German and British embassies around midday Friday and stormed Germany’s mission, setting it ablaze. Buses full of protesters then headed for the U.S. Embassy, on the outskirts of the city. Witnesses told journalists that thousands of Sudanese soon gathered outside the American diplomatic facility and were trying to climb its walls when police opened fire. At least three protesters were seen motionless on the ground, injured or perhaps dead.
In Sanaa, security outside the embassy had been significantly increased after protesters broke into the compound Thursday, smashing windows and looting offices. A new roadblock was set up to keep protesters farther away from the embassy, and two Yemeni security officers said they had been given orders to use live ammunition if the protests got too close to the compound. Several prominent conservative Muslim leaders in Yemen condemned Thursday’s embassy break-in.
Still, demonstrators on Friday burned U.S. flags and chanted “Death to America, death to Israel,” as they had the previous day. Security forces fired into the air, used tear gas and fired water cannons. The protests did not appear to have grown in size since Thursday.
In a measure of the tension between American diplomats in Cairo and the Egyptian government, a minor tempest broke out Thursday on Twitter between representatives of the Muslim Brotherhood and U.S. Embassy public affairs officials.
The Brotherhood posted a message of support for the embassy staff, saying it was “relieved” that no diplomatic worker had been harmed in the Cairo demonstrations and expressing hope that relations between the countries would be maintained through the “turbulence of Tuesday’s events.”
In response, the U.S. Embassy feed said, “Thanks. By the way, have you checked out your own Arabic feeds? I hope you know we read those too,” an apparent reference to the calls for more protests.
“We understand you’re under a lot of stress,” the Brotherhood replied. “But it will be more helpful if you point out exactly the Arabic feed of concern.”
The start of the protests, on Tuesday,coincided with an attack by militants on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, which resulted in the death of U.S. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other U.S. diplomatic personnel.
Although analysts believe the attack was premeditated, and not directly linked to anger over the anti-Muslim video, the bloodshed added to the urgency in recent days as the Obama administration tried to restore calm.
“The U.S. government had absolutely nothing to do with this video,” Clinton said at a meeting in Washington on Thursday with a delegation from Morocco. “We absolutely reject its content and messages. But there is no justification — none at all — for responding to this video with violence.”
The message went out from Washington throughout the day, in White House briefings, in speeches in Arab capitals and through official Web sites, e-mails and Twitter feeds from the State Department and its embassies around the globe.
In Pakistan, where anti-American demonstrations are frequent, the government said it had “banned” the American-made video and blocked access to it online. Although Afghanistan reportedly did the same, “Innocence of Muslims” was easily available there on the Internet on Thursday night.
Google, which owns YouTube, said it had acted on its own to stop access to the video in Egypt and Libya. A Google official said the company was “watching carefully” events in other countries.
The administration has criticized other governments for trying to shut down the Internet, bar certain content or jam cellphone and other communications it finds displeasing. It also has assisted dissidents in countries such as Syria in making their voices heard electronically. And it has struggled to develop its own ability to promote U.S. messages through social media. In separate programs, the State Department and the Pentagon have spent tens of millions of dollars to monitor the public communications of others and send out their own.