Inside Story
Anti-Islam video: A test for Arab leaders
Can the region's newest leaders navigate international demands and domestic politics as they respond to the protests?
Last Modified: 15 Sep 2012 06:52

It is a defining moment for the new leaders of the Middle East. Attacks and demonstrations are spreading across the region as anger grows over a video made in the US that is said to be highly insulting to the Prophet Muhammad.

Following the killing of the US ambassador in Libya, US missions across the Muslim world are on high alert.

"The problem is that some of the young people in Tahrir Square who are demonstrating ... have lived in a dictatorship for 60 years and they think that the president of the USA can phone somebody and say 'stop that' or 'don't do that'. They don't understand that the president cannot interfere with this and that what is happening is now a matter of opinion to which we [should] respond with opinions."

- Sherif El Haggan, an Egyptian political analyst

In Egypt, protesters have clashed with police in the capital, Cairo. A nationwide march was called by the Muslim Brotherhood, the group that propelled President Mohamed Morsi into power.

There have been similar demonstrations in Tunisia, Gaza, Sudan, Yemen - and they are spreading.

In Sanaa, hundreds of Yemenis tried to break into the US embassy on Friday and were shot at by security forces.

How they deal with these protests and navigate both international demands and domestic politics is undoubtedly a major test for the region's newest leaders.

In Libya, the government immediately apologised. There has been an investigation and arrests have been made. The group said to be responsible, Ansar al-Sharia, has been dismantled.

In Egypt, Morsi has been slower to respond. He rebuked the demonstrations on Facebook but he did not condemn the killing of the US ambassador in Libya until he received a telephone call from Barack Obama, the US president.

In Tunisia, although the interim government voiced their condemnation of the video, state media have downplayed the story.

"[Freedom of speech] is an integral part not just of American politics but of American ideology and identity .... There is a line to be drawn between something that is inciting people to violence and something that is merely insulting or offensive."

- Kurt Werthmuller, from the Hudson Institute

For its part, the US government has distanced itself from the video, with Hillary Clinton, the US secretary of state, saying: "To us, to me personally, this video is disgusting and reprehensible. It appears to have a deeply cynical purpose to denigrate a great religion and to provoke rage. Let me state very clearly, and I hope it is obvious, that the United States government had absolutely nothing to do with this video. We absolutely reject its content and message."

So how will so-called Arab Spring governments handle the ongoing public anger? Will they appease the hardliners or condemn the violence? And what of their relations with the US?

Joining Inside Story, with presenter Shiulie Ghosh, to discuss this are guests: Sherif El Haggan, an Egyptian political analyst and a professor at the American University of Cairo; Joseph Kechichian, an independent Middle East analyst and a columnist for Gulf News; and Kurt Werthmuller, a research fellow at the Center for Religious Freedom at the Hudson Institute.

"President Morsi of Egypt really is the big loser in this entire episode because he has demonstrated that he has no command on the street .... The fact that President Obama essentially uttered words that were very, very serious ... when he said that Egypt is not an ally but is not an enemy either, this to be is a diplomatic slap on the face .... It seems to me that the real winners in this entire episode are those individuals who like to manipulate masses, who like to further divide the East from the West, the Christian world from the Muslim world."

Joseph Kechichian, a Middle East analyst


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