The politics of outrage is still an irresistible temptation
One of the hopes - for me at least - of the Arab uprisings is that they will lead to a qualitative change in the substance of Arab politics. I mean this not just in the sense that undemocratic regimes will be undone, replaced by real politics with real stakes and rotation of power. I also mean that I hope the uprisings can short-circuit some old tropes of regional politics, about identity, wounded pride and angry impotence.
Alas, this week's embassy protests and senseless killings show there is still much farther to go.
Protests and incitement about books, films or statements deemed insulting to Islam have for decades been a staple tool of Islamists, and of both religious and secular governments in the region.
Consider the 2005 Danish cartoon crisis, when thousands took to the streets against offensive cartoon depictions of Prophet Mohammed - months after they had been published. This was fomented in good part by the governments of Saudi Arabia and Egypt, which, at a meeting of the Organization of the Islamic Conference, refocused the region's attention on a newspaper published four months earlier.
That resulted in protests (apparently backed by both governments and the Islamist movements with which they usually fought). In Syria and Gaza at least, governments apparently allowed several European embassies to be raided. The Danish embassy in Pakistan was also bombed. By early 2006, over 100 had died either as a result of the attacks or because of the efforts to control the riots worldwide.
Other examples quickly come to mind, from the 1988 fatwa by Iran's Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini against British-Indian novelist Salman Rushdie to the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood's campaign in 2000 against Syrian novelist Hayder Hayder's Banquet for Seaweed.
These usually served political purposes - no doubt Khomeini used the Rushdie fatwa to distract Iranians from the consequences of the terrible war with Iraq he prolonged; the Muslim Brothers loved to embarrass the government for having published Hayder's book. And in 2005, the Mubarak regime made use of the Danish cartoon crisis just as it was coming under increased domestic and external pressure to democratise.
Islamist movements (even if they are not alone in this) have shown that they excel in using an insult (real or perceived) as part of their culture wars: the tactic is to portray themselves as the sole defenders of the faith. In this week's case, they chose to do so even though the film in question was released only online and no one would have heard of it or paid attention to it without their efforts.
This, perhaps, is what has changed between the 1988 Rushdie fatwa and more recent examples of Islamist outrage: thanks to the internet, a regional Danish newspaper or an amateur film have become targets just as much as a celebrated, best-selling novelist.
Not that these protests, riots and killings are entirely about insults anyway: that the protesters chose to target US embassies has as much to do with other grievances (US-led wars, support for Israel, etc) and the convenience of having a prominent address, since protests outside the filmmaker's house, say, are out of the question.
One can certainly question why protest organisers chose the embassies, as if the US government was responsible for a film made by one of its citizens. And why do organisers sometimes lie, as when Nader Bakkar - who speaks for Egypt's Salafi Nour Party, a partner with President Mohammed Morsi's party - told Al Jazeera Mubasher that the film had been broadcast on US channels?
And why, despite the risks of escalation made obvious by the attack that killed four American diplomats in Benghazi, did the Muslim Brotherhood's secretary general, Mahmoud Ghozlan, call for new protests after Friday prayers?
There may be fundamentally different views of the limits of freedom of speech in this region and in the US (indeed, even in the West the US stands alone in the extent to which it protects racist or otherwise hurtful speech). But the reality is there is very little Egyptians can do, aside from banning the film's distribution in Egypt.
One can understand how the tragic events in Libya might have happened - the country is awash with weapons and radical groups, while the central government appears to have little control over security.
Egypt's case is fortunately less serious, although the damage to Egypt's image by extremist protesters hoisting the jihadist flag on the anniversary of September 11 is already quite enough. But the event in Egypt is more puzzling and complicated.
Why does the government, in the main headline of its flagship daily Al Ahram, turn a protest of at most 2,000 people into a sign of "popular anger"? What does it say about the state of sectarian relations, and politics generally, that Salafists took part in the protest alongside Coptic activists (denouncing the participation of a single Coptic émigré in the film) and football fans with, apparently, nothing better to do? Why is the government condemning the lack of security at the embassy while the president's political movement, which just spent the last week wooing American investors, calls for more protests? We are still far from the hoped-for improvement in the substance of politics and leadership.
The fear now is that these protests will spread from Egypt and Libya, where they began, causing more deaths and prompting more craven stupidity. The resulting cascade of outrage is now predictable: Islamophobes in the West will say "we told you they're fanatics" and the crowd-riling demagogues here will say "we told you they disrespect us". And politicians everywhere will use the language of outrage in their petty calculations.
Issandr El Amrani is an independent journalist based in Cairo and a visiting fellow at the European Center for Foreign Relations. He blogs at www.arabist.net
On Twitter: @arabist
Updated: September 13, 2012 04:00 AM