Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Cario and Benghazi - thoughts

In addition to my US politics focus, I have an MSc in Middle East Politics from SOAS, London. The area is one where I maintain a more analytical interest.
The actions that took place yesterday at the US Embassy in Cairo and the US Consulate in Benghazi, Libya were disgusting. In Cairo, the US flag was ripped down, set on fire and then replaced with a black flag representative to that adopted by Al Qa'ida. In Benghazi, an armed mob attacked the US Consulate and murdered the US Ambassador as well as three other staffers. Why did this happen? Because some individuals are upset about a video. Yes, a video. In this case, the video is one apparently being produced by moronic Florida pastor Terry Jones and a number of Egyptian Copts who live in the United States. Jones is the same guy who threatened to burn Korans a while back. There are a number of comments that I want to make here.

1) There is absolutely no excuse for the violence we saw yesterday. Freedom of speech is an inherent right. If Terry Jones wants to be a moron then he has that right under the 1st amendment. Those who are upset by his film have every right to protest, but must do so in a peaceful way. Anyone who thinks that the appropriate reaction is to resort to violence and murder innocent diplomats is a pathetic human being. Religious leaders across the Islamic world must assert this point. There is a profound example of where this guidance has previously occurred - Ayatollah Sistani. In post-2003 Iraq, Sistani played a major role in persuading Iraqi Shia to engage with the political process and to reject the sectarian war that AQI and Sadr sought.

2) The US State Department public reaction to this incident was not good. Although Hillary Clinton has offered a tougher statement of condemnation this morning, the decision by the US Embassy in Cairo to condemn free speech was a grave error. Instead, the Embassy should have noted the US legal position on free speech while distancing themselves from Jones's idiocy. Relinquishing free speech in face of violent intimidation is always the wrong choice.

3) These incidents indicate the broader tensions that are still cooking in the region. In Egypt, the Copt community has long faced sustained persecution (including violence since President Morsi was elected). It would appear that the Salafist extremists who made up at least part of yesterday's Cairo protest, were to a degree, motivated by their natural hatred for the Copts. In Libya, political fractures remain a key challenge for the provisional government. The key is that regional political dynamics remain fundamentally unstable.

4) The USMC Embassy Security Detachment did a superb job in Cairo. They were calm, professional and allowed the crowd's fury to burn itself out. What happened in Benghazi is less clear.

UPDATE - It appears that two US Marines were killed while attempting to protect diplomatic personnel in Benghazi. The US Military has initiated a Crisis Action Team and is in the process of deploying a FAST unit to reinforce US security capabilities in Libya. 

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