The haze of confusion surrounding the abrupt stroming of the U.S. Embassy in Cairo today is beginning to clear up. In a demonstration that began with a peep but quickly morphed into a violent roar, crowds of ultra-conservative Muslim protesters have climbed the walls of the embassy building, tore down the American flag and replaced it with a black flag to protest a controversial film that insults the prophet Muhammad. Here's what we know about the protests and why they spun out of control
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The film. It's not completely clear which film sparked the protest (an early CNN report cited a Dutch movie) but most reports attribute the outrage to a film produced promoted by U.S. pastor Terry Jones, that guy who inflamed Muslims around the world in 2010 by threatening to burn a Koran, and produced by Israeli-American real-estate developer Sam Bacile, who said he financed it with $5 million from 100 Jewish donors. That film was initially referred to under the title Muhammad's Trial or Muhammad, Prophet of the Muslims depending on the news source, but appears to be called Innocence of Muslims, according to the Wall Street Journal. The film appears online dubbed in Arabic and The Atlantic's Max Fisher has pieced together some of its content:
It appears to compare Mohammed to a goat and Muslims, according to one translation, to "child-lovers." ... The man in the scene says of his goat, "This is the first Muslim animal." He asks the goat if it likes girls; when it doesn't answer, he bursts into laughter and says, "He doesn't like girls," according to Stack. Other scenes in the above clip seem to portray Muslim Egyptian characters, who for some reason all have strong New York accents, as immoral and violent, particularly toward the Christians whom they pursue with near-genocidal fervor. A number of Islam's founding figures, including the prophet, are accused of homosexuality and child molestation.
Backing up charges that Jones is involved, Reuters Tamim Elyan reports that today, "Egypt's prestigious Al-Azhar mosque and seat of Sunni learning condemned on Tuesday a symbolic 'trial' of the Prophet organized by a U.S. group including Terry Jones." But obviously, it took more than a cheap online video to take off.
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A media mogul fans the flames. The news site Ahram Online reports that an Egyptian media mogul fanned the flames of the protests and called for demonstrations. "The Islamist protesters had answered a call by Salafist leader Wesam Abdel-Wareth – who is also the president of Egypt's ultra-conservative Hekma television channel – to protest the film 'Muhammad's trial' at 5pm outside the US embassy in Cairo's Garden City district," reports the site. "The protest began to deviate from its peaceful nature when some demonstrators began setting off fireworks, the sound of which resembled gunfire. Other demonstrators at the scene chanted 'Peaceful, Peaceful,' urging their fellow protesters to refrain from acts of violence."
A lack of security personnel. Although the Army has been called in, protesters were able to scale the walls and penetrate the perimeter of the Embassy. Reporting from Cairo, Foreign Policy's David Kenner writes, "Here in Egypt, the question is why security was so light as to allow the demonstrators to storm the embassy so easily -- and what the Muslim Brotherhood will do next. While Egypt's most powerful party did not instigate the protest, Cairo is waiting with bated breath to see whether it will disavow the efforts of its fellow Islamists. If not, America's old traumas may soon be coming back with a vengeance."
Fortunately, almost the entire staff had left the embassy before it was breached, according to The Associated Press. However, staff are still on pins and needles. "A few staff members were still inside, as embassy security had sent most staff home early after learning of the upcoming protest," reports the AP. "The situation is still fluid, said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he wasn't authorized to speak publicly on the matter."