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In Egypt and Libya, Evidence Mounts: Unlikely 9/11 Unrest a Response to Film Clips Alone

BY Lisa Goldman | Wednesday, September 12 2012

The story was that a movie incited mobs of enraged Muslims to attack the American embassy in Cairo and the consulate in Benghazi, Libya. The movie, "The Innocence of the Muslims," portrays the Prophet Mohamed as a philandering sex maniac; and Islam as a religion followed by gratuitously violent men in robes and turbans who run around killing people with machetes.

Clips from this film posted to YouTube and aired on Egyptian television, clips from a film that makes B movies look like Oscar winning material, allegedly incited mobs to violence. That story just does not compute. Meanwhile, one prominent Middle East watcher tells techPresident that Salafi groups had been plotting action on the anniversary of Sept. 11 for some time.

The director of the film claims he is an Israeli resident of the United States named Sam Bacile, but Israeli officials say no such citizen exists. He says he's a real estate professional in California, but a search of state public records available online shows no real estate license for anyone with that last name. A producer of the film told the Atlantic's Jeffrey Goldberg that "Bacile" was a pseudonym for a man who was definitely not Israeli. Some theorize that he is a radical Coptic Christian from Egypt. New reporting explains the role at least one Copt living in the U.S. played in publicizing the film — a role this person, Morris Sadek, an attorney and advocate for Coptic Christians, says he played only because a portion of the film raised awareness about persecution of Copts.

Whoever "Sam Bacile" is, he has told reporters that he believes Islam is a "cancer." The video can be viewed in segments on YouTube, some of which were dubbed into Arabic and broadcast on Al Nas, the Egyptian Salafi television station. The wooden acting, cheesy dialogue and cartoonish production values are abysmal; high school students could surely do much better.

In Cairo, the demonstrators breached the very substantial perimeter around the American embassy, removed the U.S. flag and replaced it with a black flag bearing the Muslim declaration of faith. In Benghazi, someone shot a rocket-propelled grenade at the consulate, killing Ambassador Chris Stevens and three members of the consulate's security personnel. Libyan leaders were quick to condemn the attack. President Obama, in his address this morning, stressed that Libyan security forces fought the mob back alongside US consulate security personnel. Egypt's President Morsi has yet to issue an official statement, except to ask the Egyptian embassy staff in Washington to take legal action against the filmmakers. Ikhwanweb, the Muslim Brotherhood's media outlet, issued a tepid condemnation of "the violence" via its Twitter account, without mentioning the Cairo embassy.

A mob of enraged Muslims attacking American embassies in the Middle East on the eleventh anniversary of 9/11 because of a film that insults the prophet makes a good plot for a bad film. The facts, however, undermine the theory.

Century Foundation fellow Michael W. Hanna, a well known Middle East expert, points out that Salafi groups had been planning anti-U.S. demonstrations for September 11 weeks before yesterday's embassy attacks. A US-based Islamist website published a call (in Arabic) in late August for a September 11 protest of the imprisonment of the "Blind Sheikh," Omar Abdel Rahman. The sheikh is serving a life sentence in the United States for conspiracy in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing.

Mohamed al Zawihiri, brother of Al Qaeda leader Ayman al Zawihiri, tweeted a call for demonstrations in Arabic.

Meanwhile, the videos, which were actually uploaded to YouTube in early July, were suddenly discovered and broadcast on a Salafi television station on September 9.

"The timing," Hanna commented, "is obviously pretty fishy."

Nor, of course, do people caught up in a spontaneous demonstration stop to grab an RPG that they just happen to have lying around the house — let alone stop to film the event and upload the clip to YouTube.

The demonstrations occurred only two days after a successful meeting in Cairo between a delegation of 100 American business executives and President Morsi. Egypt is in dire need of foreign investment to help restore its economy, which is severely weakened after 18 months of political upheaval.

"Washington and Cairo are in the midst of negotiating the terms for about $1 billion in debt relief and U.S. diplomats have said they are nudging the International Monetary Fund toward extending a $4.8 billion loan to Egypt's government," the Wall Street Journal reports.

In other words, the newly elected Egyptian president cannot afford any more political upheaval — nor can he afford a rift with Washington.

This makes President Morsi's failure to issue an official condemnation of the embassy attack appear to be diplomatically untenable. But it has everything to do with the tension between the right-wing Salafis and the more moderate Muslim Brotherhood. The Brotherhood, says Hanna, is paralyzed.

"Whenever Salafis try to drag the popular discourse to the right, they elicit acquiescence from the Brothers," Hanna said. "The Brotherhood does not want to stake a moderate position, because they might lose populist support."

President Morsi's Freedom and Justice Party has strong links to the Muslim Brotherhood, although he officially resigned from the Islamist organization when he became a presidential candidate in June.

Obviously there are many unanswered questions about the planning, funding and goals of the actors behind the attacks on the US diplomatic missions in Cairo and Benghazi. But we can say pretty much for certain that these were not spontaneous mob attacks that erupted after an anti-Muslim YouTube video was broadcast on television.