Skip to main content

Will Egypt's leaders calm or fan the crisis?

By Isobel Coleman, Special to CNN
September 13, 2012 -- Updated 1334 GMT (2134 HKT)
Isobel Coleman says the actions of Egypt's President Mohamed Morsy may help shape the outcome of the crisis in the region.
Isobel Coleman says the actions of Egypt's President Mohamed Morsy may help shape the outcome of the crisis in the region.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Isobel Coleman: Origins of anti-American actions in Egypt, Libya were quite different
  • She says Egypt demonstration prompted by offensive anti-Muslim video
  • The Libya attack, which killed 4 Americans, was well-planned, by an armed group, she says
  • Coleman: Leaders have an opportunity to help prevent further bloodshed

Editor's note: Isobel Coleman is the author of "Paradise Beneath Her Feet" and a senior fellow for U.S. foreign policy at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York.

(CNN) -- On Tuesday, protests rocked the American embassy compound in Cairo, while heavily armed militias overran the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, killing U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens and several others. The incidents initially seemed related, but they are in fact dramatically different developments.

In Egypt, a 2,000-strong crowd of protesters gathered in front of the U.S. Embassy to protest a film that depicts Islam in crude and offensive ways. The film is apparently being promoted by an Egyptian-American Coptic Christian now living in the United States and Terry Jones, the Florida pastor of "International Burn a Koran Day" infamy.

News: Six things to know about the attack

At the American embassy in Cairo, some protesters scaled the walls and in the courtyard were able to take down an American flag and put up a black Islamic flag associated with militant Islam.

Isobel Coleman
Isobel Coleman

Why the Egyptian police, ever-present outside the American Embassy, allowed the protesters to progress that far is an unanswered question, although they -- like the U.S. Marines guarding the embassy - might have reckoned that stronger action to stop the protest could have quickly escalated into violence.

The incident was eventually defused peacefully, and the Muslim Brotherhood has called for Egyptians to protest peacefully against the offensive film on Friday.

The Egyptian government is struggling to walk a fine line on this situation. On the one hand, the Egyptian public is deeply offended by the video and looks to its government to defend the faith. While President Morsy has made some lukewarm statements about the responsibility of the Egyptian government to protect diplomatic missions, he has issued much stronger words denouncing the film.

Indeed, he has demanded the United States take "all possible legal action" against the producers of the movie, an indication he does not fully understand our First Amendment. This is a widespread problem across the Arab world: People who have lived their lives largely under dictatorship simply cannot understand how a film can be made without government sanction. Their protest against the film is a protest against America.

Opinion: Extremists don't speak for Libya

On the other hand, Egypt's government is also well aware that ongoing street protests and any type of violence badly hurt its efforts to revive an economy that depends largely on tourism. The protests also could undermine international support. Egypt needs U.S. support for a $4.8 billion International Monetary Fund loan, and the United States is also considering forgiving $1 billion in Egyptian debt. As a statement from Egypt's foreign ministry about the embassy protests correctly noted, "Such incidents will negatively impact the image of stability in Egypt, which will have consequences on the life of its citizens."

Are there power vacuums in Libya, Egypt?
Fringe group behind Libya attacks?
Protesters storm U.S. embassy buildings

Reports of what happened in Libya are still emerging, but it seems clear that the takeover of the consulate was a well-planned attack by a highly armed group. The protests against the video simply provided an expedient cover or perhaps were even coincidental with an attack planned for the anniversary of 9/11.

The success of the assault underscores the fragility of the security situation in Libya. Not only are there competing militias that have yet to relinquish their weapons, there are also various heavily armed jihadi groups determined to replace the state with an Islamic government. The attack in Benghazi was apparently planned and carried out by members of a "pro al Qaeda group," perhaps in retaliation for the death of a Libyan al Qaeda member in June.

Although local forces tried to fire back, they were no match for the group's guns, grenades, and by some accounts, rockets. Libya's president condemned the violence, saying, "We refuse that our nation's lands be used for cowardice and revengeful acts. It is not a victory for God's Sharia or his prophet for such disgusting acts to take place." However, it is unclear whether the government can respond effectively to the myriad security challenges it faces. To bolster Libyan capabilities, Washington is apparently sending reconnaissance drones over Libya to help hunt down the jihadi perpetrators.

The tragic violence in Libya and the unrest in Egypt raise the stakes on long-simmering tensions and issues. While debates over free speech and the role of religion in society have defined the Egyptian political scene in recent months, religious frictions between Egyptian Coptic Christians and Muslims are now at an important inflection point. The association of an Egyptian Copt with the offensive video is sure to inflame those tensions.

In Libya, the violence is yet another indication of competing visions for the future of the country, which, despite a successful national election in July, have not been resolved.

Opinion: Libya killings show U.S. at risk in Arab world

If history is anything to go by, we can expect difficult weeks ahead as protests against the video spread and likely erupt into violence in other places. In a notorious case beginning in 2005, cartoons negatively depicting the prophet Mohammed, published in a Danish newspaper, sparked uproar from Indonesia to Afghanistan to Morocco. At least 200 people lost their lives in unrest related to that controversy.

How much momentum the current video controversy generates will depend in no small on part on whether Islamic leaders in Egypt and other countries call for restraint or choose to fan the flames.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Isobel Coleman.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 2311 GMT (0711 HKT)
President Obama has been flexing his executive muscles lately despite Democrat's losses, writes Gloria Borger
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 1951 GMT (0351 HKT)
Jeff Yang says the film industry's surrender will have lasting implications.
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 2113 GMT (0513 HKT)
Newt Gingrich: No one should underestimate the historic importance of the collapse of American defenses in the Sony Pictures attack.
December 10, 2014 -- Updated 1255 GMT (2055 HKT)
Dean Obeidallah asks how the genuine Stephen Colbert will do, compared to "Stephen Colbert"
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 1734 GMT (0134 HKT)
Some GOP politicians want drug tests for welfare recipients; Eric Liu says bailed-out execs should get equal treatment
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 1342 GMT (2142 HKT)
Louis Perez: Obama introduced a long-absent element of lucidity into U.S. policy on Cuba.
December 16, 2014 -- Updated 1740 GMT (0140 HKT)
The slaughter of more than 130 children by the Pakistani Taliban may prove as pivotal to Pakistan's security policy as the 9/11 attacks were for the U.S., says Peter Bergen.
December 17, 2014 -- Updated 1600 GMT (0000 HKT)
The Internet is an online extension of our own neighborhoods. It's time for us to take their protection just as seriously, says Arun Vishwanath.
December 16, 2014 -- Updated 2154 GMT (0554 HKT)
Gayle Lemmon says we must speak out for the right of children to education -- and peace
December 17, 2014 -- Updated 1023 GMT (1823 HKT)
Russia's economic woes just seem to be getting worse. How will President Vladimir Putin respond? Frida Ghitis gives her take.
December 17, 2014 -- Updated 0639 GMT (1439 HKT)
Australia has generally seen itself as detached from the threat of terrorism. The hostage incident this week may change that, writes Max Barry.
December 12, 2014 -- Updated 2020 GMT (0420 HKT)
Thomas Maier says the trove of letters the Kennedy family has tried to guard from public view gives insight into the Kennedy legacy and the history of era.
December 15, 2014 -- Updated 1456 GMT (2256 HKT)
Will Congress reform the CIA? It's probably best not to expect much from Washington. This is not the 1970s, and the chances for substantive reform are not good.
December 15, 2014 -- Updated 2101 GMT (0501 HKT)
From superstorms to droughts, not a week goes by without a major disruption somewhere in the U.S. But with the right planning, natural disasters don't have to be devastating.
December 15, 2014 -- Updated 1453 GMT (2253 HKT)
Would you rather be sexy or smart? Carol Costello says she hates this dumb question.
December 14, 2014 -- Updated 2253 GMT (0653 HKT)
A story about Pope Francis allegedly saying animals can go to heaven went viral late last week. The problem is that it wasn't true. Heidi Schlumpf looks at the discussion.
December 14, 2014 -- Updated 1550 GMT (2350 HKT)
Democratic leaders should wake up to the reality that the party's path to electoral power runs through the streets, where part of the party's base has been marching for months, says Errol Louis
December 13, 2014 -- Updated 2123 GMT (0523 HKT)
David Gergen: John Brennan deserves a national salute for his efforts to put the report about the CIA in perspective
December 12, 2014 -- Updated 1426 GMT (2226 HKT)
Anwar Sanders says that in some ways, cops and protesters are on the same side
December 11, 2014 -- Updated 1439 GMT (2239 HKT)
A view by Samir Naji, a Yemeni who was accused of serving in Osama bin Laden's security detail and imprisoned for nearly 13 years without charge in Guantanamo Bay
December 14, 2014 -- Updated 1738 GMT (0138 HKT)
S.E. Cupp asks: How much reality do you really want in your escapist TV fare?
December 11, 2014 -- Updated 1828 GMT (0228 HKT)
Rip Rapson says the city's 'Grand Bargain' saved pensions and a world class art collection by pulling varied stakeholders together, setting civic priorities and thinking outside the box
December 13, 2014 -- Updated 2310 GMT (0710 HKT)
Glenn Schwartz says the airing of the company's embarrassing emails might wake us up to the usefulness of talking in-person instead of electronically
December 12, 2014 -- Updated 2233 GMT (0633 HKT)
The computer glitch that disrupted air traffic over the U.K. on Friday was a nuisance, but not dangerous, says Les Abend
ADVERTISEMENT