This article originally appeared on Democracy Arsenal, the blog of National Security Network.
The tragic and violent demonstrations of September 11 in Benghazi, Libya and Cairo, Egypt have unleashed a torrent of online commentary and speculation today, with some occasional fact-based reporting mixed in. Add to that a heavy, disgraceful dose of electioneering over the not-yet-cold corpses of our public servants. Here’s what you need to know to catch up.
We still don’t know fundamental facts about what happened. This is important, because some commentators and legislators have called for immediately cutting off aid to Egypt and Libya, or even for military strikes. But a smart response will be one that has facts on its side. Some things we don’t yet know: Who is responsible? A Libya-based extremist group with links to al Qaeda has claimed responsibility; the Libyan government has pointed fingers at al Qaeda. Washington has said nothing. Were the Libya and Cairo protests coordinated? There’s no evidence of that.
We don’t know why. Was the Benghazi attack part of protests of a Western film perceived as anti-Islamic, or was it planned separately in advance and just took advantage? We don’t know, and at least one commentator suggests the killing was in retaliation for a U.S. drone strike in Pakistan.
We also don’t know as much as we thought we knew about the film that sparked the first round of protests. Reporting before and immediately after the protests identified an “Israeli” or “Jewish American” film producer, Sam Bacile, who had posted on YouTube an incendiary trailer for a film, funded by “100 Jewish donors” and promoted by Terry Jones, the Florida pastor of 2010 Koran-burning fame. Subsequent reporting has brought his religion, nationality and very existence into question, and the only thing that seems clear is that someone was eager to fan the flames of sectarian hatred – and not eager to be identified. The actors and crew now say they were misled, thinking they were making a film about a “generic Egyptian” named “Master George,” with the most incendiary lines appear to have been (poorly) overdubbed after filming. In one scene, the dubbed voice says “Mohammed” while the actor’s lips appear to say “George.”
What we do know:
Someone posted an inflammatory, poorly-produced video that seemed designed to anger Muslims, and then began promoting it to make sure people noticed. They did. Protests were planned in Cairo and Benghazi. Some protestors at each event seemed to have more violent goals in mind, with the result of a tense standoff in Cairo that closed the U.S. Embassy, and a four-hour firefight in Benghazi that left 10 Libyan security guards and four Americans dead, and three more Americans (and probably many Libyans) injured.
We learned today some important things about how people in the region and in the United States are reacting, and what that says about the future.
Libyan people are anxious for Americans to know this violence doesn’t reflect their views. Thousands of Libyans demonstrated in solidarity with Washington and against extremism today. Ten Libyan security guards gave their lives trying to protect the consulate and our diplomats in Benghazi. At the same time, Libyans went to the polls – and seem to have selected the most pro-Western of the candidates for Prime Minister.
More protests are coming. A protest in Tunis today was pushed back by Tunisian security forces. Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood has called for more Cairo protests against the offending movie tomorrow. Protests may occur in Yemen as well. Experts are watching Afghanistan, where prior protests of perceived American insults to Islam have resulted in American fatalities, and Pakistan with great concern – such great concern that the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff called Koran-burning Florida pastor Terry Jones and asked him to stop promoting the video.
The fate of the “Arab Spring” still hangs in the balance. Some commentators see in this violence, and governments’ inability or unwillingness to control it, the end of hopes for progress toward democracy across the Arab world. Foreign Policy’s Marc Lynch suggests, instead, that not the events themselves but how governments and peoples react, today and in the days to follow, will decide. In the long run, the greatest strategic worry here may be the Muslim Brotherhood-allied government of Egypt, whose response to the attack on our Embassy has been disappointing in rhetoric and substance.
So may the fate of Mitt Romney. After the Romney campaign issued a press release criticizing a statement made by Embassy Cairo while it was under siege, and followed up with Romney criticizing Obama shortly before the President spoke this morning, senior GOP leadership hurried to call for national unity while declining to endorse Romney’s critique. GOP foreign policy wonks, meanwhile, fell over each other to complain to reporters off the record, with John McCain’s former Chief of Staff Mark Salter writing a firm rebuke. The media has spent the day piling on, with pundits debating whether this is the end of Romney’s campaign or just one more bad day.