In Cairo, angry yet small protests

Anti-American protests went forward in Cairo near the US embassy today but were small compared to the mass events at Tahrir Square since the uprising against Hosni Mubarak in 2011.

Khalil Hamra/AP
An Egyptian protester covers his face during clashes with security forces, not shown, near the US embassy in Cairo, Friday, Sept. 14. The protests are part of widespread anger across the Muslim world about a film ridiculing Islam's Prophet Muhammad.

Several thousand Egyptians demonstrated in Tahrir Square against the US and an anti-Islam YouTube video today, while nearby several hundred protesters clashed with police near the American embassy in Cairo.

The relatively small protest in Tahrir Square took place after the Muslim Brotherhood called off large demonstrations it had planned across the country today. Many saw the cancellation as an acknowledgement that the situation had been mishandled and angered the US, particularly with President Mohamed Morsi’s delay in condemning the Tuesday breach of the American embassy in Cairo on Wednesday. 

On that day protesters, angered by Egyptian media reports of the anti-Islam film, had scaled the wall of the American embassy, brought down the American flag, and replaced it with an Islamist banner. Usually heavy government security in the area took no action to stop the breach.

In Tahrir today, a few thousand people gathered to protest, many of whom appeared to be ultraconservative Muslims. The gathering was relatively small, compared to protests over the last year and a half. Many in the crowd raised black flags with Islamic inscriptions, and some chanted slogans referring to Osama bin Laden.

But that was just to send a message, said protester Mohamed Afifi, who works in an oil company and came to Tahrir to show his anger. “Those are just words, nothing more,” he said of the Osama chants. “Our prophet treated people with respect, and we will do the same. We came here to say we won’t let anyone defame him like this.”

 He he condemned the violence in Libya, where an armed group killed four Americans, including the US ambassador, and the attacks on the US embassy in Cairo. “The people who did it are youth. They don’t understand,” he said.

Not far away, hundreds of youth were throwing rocks at police, who responded with volleys of tear gas. The low-level clashes, which began when police started trying to push protesters back from the American embassy, have been ongoing for almost two days. Some of the young men, their faces wrapped in scarves to protect against the tear gas and some with handfuls of rocks to use as missiles, said they were there to defend the honor of the prophet Muhammad against the slander of the anti-Islam YouTube video. But they also appeared to be motivated by general anti-American sentiment.

When asked why they didn’t join the peaceful protest in Tahrir square, which had the same goal, a protester named Mohamed said “we want to destroy the [American] embassy.” They held the US government responsible for not stopping the film.

But the low turnout in Tahrir and nearer to the embassy gave an indication that many Egyptians disagreed with him. A few minutes away from Tahrir, Faris Ahmed said he would not join the protest. He considers the YouTube video, which he has never seen, to be insulting. But “everyone is free to say what he wishes. We don’t need to burn down embassies because one person cursed the prophet,” he said. “These people who entered the embassy are backwards in their thinking. They don’t understand.”

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