BENGHAZI, LIBYA// A deadly wave of protests across the Muslim world receded yesterday, but left leaders propelled to power by the Arab Spring counting the potential political and economic cost.
At least eight people, including the US ambassador to Libya, have died since tens of thousands of demonstrators began attacking western embassies and businesses to vent their anger over a film made in the United States that defames the Prophet Mohammed.
But yesterday in Cairo, where the protests began with an assault on the US embassy last Tuesday night, clashes in Tahrir Square came to a halt after Egypt's main Islamist groups called for calm. A newly erected concrete barrier kept protesters well away from the embassy, and the streets remained relatively quiet.
The president, Mohammed Morsi, a prominent member of the Muslim Brotherhood until his election victory this year, is understood to have received a heated late-night phone call last week from the US president Barack Obama. Egypt receives about $1.5 billion a year from the US, most of it in military aid.
In Tunisia, where the government is led by by the moderate Islamist Ennahda party, a high security presence deterred protesters from taking to the streets of Tunis. "I recognise that we failed to protect the embassy and we should offer our apologies to the Americans," said the interior minister, Ali Larayedh. A security investigation is under way, he said.
The US embassy in Tunis hoisted a new American flag, after the old one was torn down on Friday by demonstrators bearing the black banner adopted by extremist Islamist groups.
A statement on the embassy's Facebook page expressed thanks for "messages of support" and to Tunisians who "assisted us yesterday while the embassy was under attack".
Hundreds of Israeli Arabs protested against the film yesterday in the north of the country, but Israel police dispersed a crowd of 150 Palestinians in mainly Arab east Jerusalem, where they tried to march to a US consulate building. There was calm on the surface in Benghazi, although flights remained disrupted after American drones attracted anti-aircraft fire earlier in the week. According to a Washington Post report, FBI investigators have not yet been able to begin work in Benghazi, and although Libyan officials say four people have been arrested in connection with the attack on the US consulate in which the US ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans died, they have not yet been charged.
The president of Libya's interim government, Mohammed Al Magarief, said on Friday that he believed Al Qaeda had been behind the "organised" attack on the consulate, but several people in the city said they feared Libya's loosely organised security services would be unable to bring the perpetrators of the attack to justice.
Members of the armed, Islamist Ansar Al Sharia group, at least some of whose members had been present during the attack, continued to guard a hospital in the city, while other participants in the assault held a demonstration on Friday in a main road in the city, apparently unconcerned about the prospect of being arrested.
American attempts to boost security in vulnerable diplomatic missions by sending teams of marines ran into problems when authorities in Yemen and Sudan rejected the deployment of extra soldiers, and said national security forces were capable of protecting the compounds. On Friday, a crowd of rioters penetrated the embassy compound in the Yemeni capital, while in Sudan, three people died when the German and American embassies were stormed and black Islamist flags raised.
Debate raged among religious leaders and extremists about whether attacks on US embassies and diplomats, or perhaps an international anti-blasphemy law, were legitimate responses to the film that sparked the protests.
Sheikh Ahmed Al Tayyeb, grand imam of Al Azhar Mosque in Cairo, the highest seat of Sunni Muslim learning, called for an international resolution banning any attack on Muslim religious symbols, as a response to "those who provoked challenges to world peace and international security".
In Saudi Arabia, the Grand Mufti also denounced the film, but was scathing about the attacks. "It is forbidden to punish the innocent for the wicked crimes of the guilty, or to attack those who have been granted protection of their lives and property, or to expose public buildings to fire or destruction," he said.
Al Qaeda, however, called for more violence. "Let the step of kicking out the embassies be a step towards liberating Muslim countries from the American hegemony," Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, the Yemeni offshoot of the terror organisation, said.
It called on Muslims to emulate the example of Libyans who attacked and burnt the consulate in Benghazi. The organisation said the attack was a response to the death of Al Qaeda leader Abu Yahia Al Libi, a Libyan killed in a US drone strike.
* With additional reporting by the Associated Press, Agence France-Presse and Reuters and Bloomberg