x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Five killed as film protests spread across the region

There were reports of at least five dead protesters during mêlées in Sudan, Lebanon and Tunisia on Friday. Hundreds more were wounded as US diplomatic missions, some US businesses and even an American school came under attack by a barrage of stones, glass and Molotov cocktails hurled by demonstrators.

Tunisian protesters break into the US Embassy in Tunis during a protest against a film that mocked Islam. Fethi Belaid / AFP
Tunisian protesters break into the US Embassy in Tunis during a protest against a film that mocked Islam. Fethi Belaid / AFP

CAIRO // Outrage about a film that insults the Prophet Mohammed spread across the Middle East and to other Muslim countries yesterday, as protesters scaled the walls of US embassies in Tunisia and Sudan, burnt US flags and clashed with police and security forces.

As darkness fell in regional capitals, there were reports of at least five dead protesters during mêlées in Sudan, Lebanon and Tunisia. Hundreds more were wounded as US diplomatic missions, some US businesses and even an American school came under attack by a barrage of stones, glass and Molotov cocktails hurled by demonstrators.

Amid the turmoil, Islamist militants waving black banners and shouting "God is great" stormed an international peacekeepers base in Egypt's Sinai and battled troops, wounding four Colombians.

Protests across the Muslim world began shortly after Friday prayers, where many worshippers heard sermons denouncing the amateur, American-made film that denigrates the Prophet Mohammed and was circulated on YouTube.

The most violent demonstrations occurred in the Tunisian capital, where the deaths of at least two people were confirmed as protesters stormed the US Embassy compound and Tunisian security forces responded by firing rubber bullets into the crowd. An American school near the compound was set alight.

At least one protester was killed in the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli in clashes with security forces, after a crowd of protesters set fire to a KFC and an Arby's restaurant.

Fighting between protesters and police also left 25 people wounded, 18 of them police. An elite US Marine rapid response team has arrived in Yemen after violence and protests in the capital of Sanaa. While the German's foreign minister said the country's embassy in the Sudanese capital was stormed by protesters and partially set on fire.

In Cairo, there was less tumult than expected. The Muslim Brotherhood withdrew its calls for a large protest in Tahrir Square, saying its members would participate instead in a "symbolic protest". The move was a sign of the growing fears of Muslim groups and religious leaders that the furore over the film was in danger of resulting in greater violence and worsened relations with the US.

"In light of the events of the last two days, the Brotherhood has decided to participate only in a symbolic protest in Tahrir Square, so that there is no more destruction to property, or injuries, or deaths, as has happened in the past," said Mahmud Hussein, the group's secretary general, in a statement.

Officers from Egypt's interior ministry constructed a 4.5-metre concrete wall to block access to the street where the US Embassy in located, just steps from Tahrir Square. Dozens of people were seen throwing rocks over the wall yesterday throughout the day and into the evening. The clashes only paused for about one hour during Friday prayers.

Religious leaders and people who had come to peacefully demonstrate in the square were unable to stop the attacks, even after a group of volunteers created a human chain to try to block access to the area. "I came here today to make sure that there were people of wisdom in Tahrir Square, not just the angry youths," said Mohammed Mansour, 37, a furniture worker from the coastal city of Damietta.

Mr Mansour, a self-professed Salafist, blamed the Egyptian president, Mohammed Morsi, for not acting quicker to assuage the anger of Muslims in Egypt about the "outrage" of the film.

"His response was too weak and too late," he said, as tear-gas canisters were shot behind him into Tahrir Square. "The people are faster and stronger.''

Mr Morsi, travelling in Italy, condemned the film and called for protesters to remain peaceful. He also denounced the violence earlier this week in Libya that killed four Americans, including the US ambassador.

His comments were more direct than those issued after an angry crowd stormed the US Embassy on Tuesday night.

"We cannot accept this type of aggression and attempt to sow discord. These irresponsible actions yield no good and draw attention away from real problems like the conflict in Syria, the fate of the Palestinians and the lack of stability in the Middle East," he told reporters in Rome. "The Egyptian people reject and oppose any pernicious attempts to offend the Prophet of Islam. Everyone rejects this. Americans also reject these actions, President Obama told me."

While yesterday's protests across the Muslim world were sparked by the film, Innocence of Muslims, they also took on a broad, anti-American tone, which the Obama administration has been unable to staunch.

Nakoula Basseley Nakoula, a 55-year-old man living in a Los Angeles suburb who served time in prison for bank fraud, has been linked to the making of the video. The White House said yesterday it had contacted video sharing website YouTube to ask for a review of the movie. Also, local authorities in Los Angeles said yesterday that US probation officials were looking into potential violations of prison release terms.

Hillary Clinton, the US secretary of state, condemned the film late Thursday night, calling it "disgusting and reprehensible".

Given the constitutional guarantees for free expression in the US, the Obama administration is, however, legally powerless to act against the makers of the movie that has incited the violence - a fact that Jay Carney, the White House press secretary, also noted.

"We understand that it is hard for some people around the world to understand why the United States does not prevent movies like this from seeing the light of day," Mr. Carney said. "Our government does not and cannot stop individual citizens from expressing their views."

Yet no statements emanating from Washington mollified protesters yesterday, as protesters in Cairo and Tunis said the Obama administration had not done enough.

"Do people in America not understand how this film makes us feel?" said Ahmed Zain, 31, an Egyptian surgeon. "We respect Christians and even Jews. The least the American government can do is arrest these filmmakers and make a law to prevent more films from being made."

While deploring the outbreak of violence, Sami Al Khudrawi, one of the organisers of the protests in Tunis, demanded more contrition from Washington.

"I'm here to protest the fact that American officials and president didn't give any apology to the Muslim community in the whole world. They say that this man has freedom of expression and can say what he likes about the Prophet," said

Mr Al Khudrawi, 37, predicted that the protests and violence would escalate unless US officials apologised for the film.

"This is touching our faith and for our faith we will sacrifice anything."

 

bhope@thenational.ae

afordham@thenational.ae

* With additional reporting by the Associated Press, Reuters and Agence France-Presse