Protesters against an anti-Muslim film stormed the American Embassy compound in Tunisia and targeted diplomatic missions in Sudan and Yemen, while in Egypt the main Islamist groups sought to ease tensions with the U.S.
The day of turmoil across the Arab and Muslim world put new Arab Spring leaders in nations such as Tunisia and Egypt on the defensive as Islamists showed their power to exploit popular discontent. The violence also kept President Barack Obama under pressure over his support for the Arab revolutions and over questions about whether his administration was caught unprepared for the threats to U.S. personnel and property.
The remains of the four Americans killed in a Sept. 11 attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, returned to the U.S. yesterday in a solemn ceremony at Andrews Air Force Base near Washington. Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton paid tribute to the fallen Americans, including slain ambassador Christopher Stevens who played a pivotal role in helping Libyan rebels topple the Muammar Qaddafi dictatorship.
“Even as voices of suspicion and mistrust seek to divide countries and cultures from one another, the United States of America will never retreat from the world,” Obama told an audience of more than 200 in an open hangar. “We will never stop working for the dignity and freedom that every person deserves, whatever their creed, whatever their faith. That’s the essence of American leadership.”
Clinton said “reasonable people and responsible leaders” in Arab and Muslim nations need to restore security and hold accountable those who commit violent acts.
“The people of Egypt, Libya, Yemen and Tunisia did not trade the tyranny of a dictator for the tyranny of a mob,” Clinton said.
In Washington, Representative Paul Ryan expanded yesterday on criticism that Mitt Romney, the Republican presidential nominee, has aimed at Obama since protests erupted over the film that ridicules the Prophet Muhammad.
“Only by the confident exercise of American influence are evil and violence overcome,” Ryan, the Republican vice presidential nominee, said in a speech before the Family Research Council. “That is how we keep problems abroad from becoming crises.”
In Cairo, where calls for a mass rally yesterday had raised concerns that violence would escalate in the Arab world’s most populous nation, more than 1,000 people -- including members of President Mohamed Mursi’s Muslim Brotherhood -- headed toward the U.S. embassy after Friday prayers, seeking to calm the tense situation. They chanted slogans urging an end to four days of fighting between demonstrators and police.
“We will get justice for the prophet, but without blood,” Mazhar Shahine, a prominent cleric, told the crowd, referring the the made-in-America movie that sparked the protests.
“Mursi and the Brotherhood are seeking to avert an escalation of tensions with the U.S. that could undermine his efforts to repair the economy and restore Egypt’s regional status,” Bruce Riedel, a senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution, a Washington policy group, said in an interview. “While it can’t stop demonstrations, it wants to stop al-Qaeda- like elements from taking advantage of them to smash the U.S.- Egypt relationship.”
In Tunisia, birthplace of the Arab Spring, protesters yesterday penetrated the U.S. embassy grounds after scaling the walls, and a cloud of smoke hung over the compound. Tunisian security forces fired shots and entered the embassy grounds chasing the demonstrators, who didn’t get into the main embassy building. Authorities also battled a fire set by protesters that gutted the American school adjoining the embassy.
Three people were killed and 28 wounded in the clashes, state television reported. President Moncef Marzouki reacted by asking Tunisians to denounce the violence and groups behind it, Al Arabiya television reported.
In Sudan’s capital, Khartoum, Germany’s embassy was set afire and crowds also gathered outside U.S. and British missions. German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle said in Berlin that all personnel at the embassy in Sudan were safe. While describing the disputed film “shameful,” he said it “isn’t a justification for violence.”
Three protesters were killed near the U.S. embassy in Khartoum when police vehicles ran over them, Al Jazeera reported.
Police used water cannons and fired warning shots into the air to disburse hundreds of protesters who rallied for a second day at the U.S. Embassy in Yemen’s capital, Sana’a. Four protesters were killed attempting to storm the embassy Sept. 13, according to the Interior Ministry.
Pentagon spokesman George Little told reporters that an anti-terrorism security team of about 50 U.S. Marines arrived in Sana’a yesterday, part of efforts to bolster American security in the region.
Israeli police used stun grenades to stop about 500 Muslims trying to make their way to the U.S. consulate in Jerusalem, police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said.
Armed militants attacked the headquarters of the Multinational Force & Observers in northern Sinai near the border of Gaza and Israel, wounding three peacekeepers, according to Mohamed Saeed, the head of criminal investigations in north Sinai.
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan told reporters in Crimea, Ukraine, that “insulting the prophet cannot be considered as freedom of expression,” while also condemning the attack on U.S. diplomats in Libya.
In Pakistan, protesters burned U.S. and Israeli flags as they staged small rallies. In the capital, Islamabad, riot police stopped a group of about 200 people trying to march toward the high-security zone where foreign missions are located. Pakistan on Sept. 13 blocked websites showing excerpts of the controversial film, and the lower house of parliament passed a resolution demanding the video be removed from the Internet.
In neighboring Afghanistan, where authorities have also taken steps to block access to the video, about 200 people protested the film in eastern Jalalabad province, chanting anti- U.S. slogans, according to police.
Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, one of the main groups calling for rallies in that country, said it decided to have only a “symbolic” presence in Cairo’s central Tahrir Square yesterday to avoid violence, focusing their presence on the country’s main mosques.
Mursi told reporters in Rome that attacks on embassies or consulates are “absolutely unacceptable and we have the obligation” to defend them.
Egypt is seeking a $4.8 billion loan from the International Monetary Fund, in which the U.S. is the biggest shareholder, and pushing for more influence on issues such as the conflict in Syria.
Egypt’s credit default swaps declined 15 basis points to a one-year low of 398 yesterday. Yields on Egypt’s dollar bonds due April 2020 were little changed at 5.25 percent. Local markets were closed yesterday.
Mursi escaped a political crisis as the situation was calmed by the Brotherhood and other groups, yet the incidents may hurt him in the longer term, said Hani Sabra, an analyst at the Eurasia Group in New York. He said Mursi’s belated response to the embassy attacks has clouded the image he was building with his assertion of power over the military.
Salafi Islamists, who follow an austere form of the religion, also called for calm in Egypt. Yosri Hamad, a spokesman for the Salafi Nour party that was runner-up to the Brotherhood in parliamentary elections last year, urged Muslims to temper their response to the film and “abide by the teaching of the prophet.”
To contact the reporters on this story: Salma El Wardany in Cairo at firstname.lastname@example.org; Tarek El-Tablawy in Cairo at email@example.com; Jihen Laghmari in Tunis at firstname.lastname@example.org
To contact the editor responsible for this story: Andrew J. Barden at email@example.com