Breaking Down the Attack on the US Embassy in Cairo

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In the wake of the attack on the US embassy in Egypt, talk of attempts to sow sectarian strife are once again at the forefront of local media, and this time the Egyptian government and the Muslim Brotherhood both point at a group of Coptic emigrants living in the US. While protesters directed their anger at the film and those they believe are behind it, the government’s reaction has been slow, puzzling and gives rise to conspiracy theories.

The Sectarian Card

When news of the film first surfaced on ultraconservative Egyptian satellite channel, Al Nas TV, the hosts discussed it only in the context of its connections with US-based Copts, particularly in reference to Maurice Sadeq, a Coptic lawyer living in the US well known for his conservative points of view. No mention was made of the film’s creator Sam Bacile, or that the trailer which sparked the protests has been publicly available on YouTube since July. The question which has yet to be answered is why did it surface now?

In its official statement, the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party drove home the point that the film was “promoted by US Coptic Christian individuals”, while describing it as a “a failed attempt to provoke sectarian strife between the two elements of the nation: Muslims and Christians.” The Muslim Brotherhood’s official site reported that Brotherhood lawyer, Abdel Moneim Abdel Maqsoud filed a lawsuit against the film’s producers, listing Maurice Sadeq and Esmat Zaqlama among others. Since then, local Egyptian media has reported that the film was allegedly created by Sam Bacile, and funded by “more than 100 Jews.” However, questions surround the veracity of this claim, with some saying that no one by the name Bacile exists

While the Muslim Brotherhood and the government decry the film’s attempts to sow sectarian strife, they seem to be making no effort to do any different. Rather than downplay the involvement of fringe US-based Copts, their role has been magnified by the government and Brotherhood response. This move could have repercussions on Egypt’s own Copts, by doing exactly what is being criticized – sowing sectarian strife.

The Syrian Embassy vs. the US Embassy

Protests held last week in the vicinity of the Syrian embassy were met with a heavy-handed response by Egypt’s security forces. Police immediately responded to stone-throwing protesters with tear gas and arrests. The protesters at the Syrian embassy unsuccessfully used the same tactic as those at the US embassy – to take down the flag – but authorities managed to prevent any damage. Why then were protesters able to scale the wall, with reports of ladders used not only to take down the US flag, but also to replace it with another? Despite a police presence in the area, they remained out of the crowd’s way, and the army intervened long after the uproar had died down as the crowds thinned. Four people have since been arrested in connection with the incident.

One theory put forward posits an attempt to tarnish the Morsi administration. With a strong Salafi contingent present at the protest, and the video first emerging on a channel with Salafi affiliations, some believe that the conservative Islamist political movement pushed the obscure issue out from behind the scenes in an attempt to discredit a government that has been less than favorable to its members. The Egyptian government’s attempt to steer public attention away from the US government could indicate that the protests were in fact an attempt to tarnish Morsi’s reputation, and jeopardize Egypt’s relations with the US.

Morsi’s own faction, the Muslim Brotherhood, pushed for protests to continue with a call for a Friday demonstration. While it openly criticized attacks on the US embassy in Libya, their response to the domestic incident took on a different nature, focusing squarely on the film and largely ignoring the protests at the US embassy in Cairo.

This leads us to a second theory that has made the rounds in the past 24 hours that – like his predecessor, Hosni Mubarak – Morsi is using the film and subsequent protest as a diversion. While Egypt’s constitution, parliament, and future hang in the balance, local media and those following it are now concerned with side issues that will have no bearing on Egypt’s political future. 

Nancy Messieh is the associate director of the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East and editor of EgyptSource

Photo Credit: Nasser Nasser

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