Anti-U.S. protests waning in Muslim world

The Obama administration ordered the evacuation of all but emergency U.S. government personnel, and all family members, from diplomatic missions in Tunisia and Sudan on Saturday and warned Americans not to travel to those countries.

The action came as leaders across the Muslim world took stock of their relationship with the United States, a major provider of aid and investment, and struggled to balance it with the will of their populations. In Sudan, the State Department order came after the government in Khartoum rejected a U.S. request to send a Marine anti-terrorism unit to protect the embassy there, which came under attack by protesters Friday.

In Yemen, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula issued a statement urging more killings of U.S. diplomats, and the Yemeni parliament demanded that all foreign troops in the country be sent home, including roughly 50 U.S. Marines deployed to protect the embassy there. The U.S. military and CIA have been in Yemen for some time, in cooperation with the Yemeni government, as part of counterterrorism operations.

The decision to evacuate was the latest consequence of a week of anti-American rage across more than 20 countries in the Muslim world, although most were quiet Saturday. U.S. officials said they ordered the evacuations out of caution rather than knowledge of any specific threats. The United States does not currently have an ambassador assigned to Sudan but maintains a diplomatic presence there.

The order leaves a significantly reduced diplomatic presence in Tunisia, the country that sparked the Arab Spring last year, where additional security was also deployed to the embassy last week. A travel warning issued for Tunisia noted that the international airport was open in Tunis, the capital, “and U.S. citizens are encouraged to depart by commercial air.”

Saturday’s pullback follows the evacuation of 50 U.S. diplomatic personnel from Libya, where Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other State Department employees were killed Tuesday in an assault on the consulate in Benghazi.

As the administration continued to reach out aggressively to its allies and partners in the region and beyond, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton spoke by telephone Saturday with the leaders or foreign ministers of Britain, Libya, Egypt, France, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Somalia, the State Department said.

In Egypt, after days of pressure from the United States, President Mohamed Morsi took decisive action Saturday against lingering protests near the U.S. Embassy, with police making arrests and clearing Tahrir Square of demonstrations whose cause Morsi had only days earlier endorsed. But he had to contend with continued pressure from ultraconservative Muslims and disaffected young people who had fought for days near the embassy.

Morsi had been in the middle of negotiating more than $1 billion in aid, debt forgiveness and U.S. investments when protesters, prodded by rage over an obscure anti-Islam video that was made in the United States, stormed the embassy walls and pulled down and destroyed the American flag. The assistance talks have been subsumed by the days of protests near the embassy – some of which were called for by Morsi’s own Muslim Brotherhood party.

But it is the once-repressed, ultra­conservative Salafists who have proved the most complicated for Morsi to handle as he navigates his nation of 83 million people through a democratic transition that has freed citizens to be as religiously conservative and anti-American as they wish. The Salafist Nour party was one of the main sparks of the Tuesday protests in Cairo that presaged the regional conflagration, although Nour backed off when the situation turned violent and endorsed Saturday’s sweep of Tahrir.

The Salafists’ first taste of political power is toning down their rhetoric, some experts say. Salafists helped form a human chain in Tahrir Square on Friday to keep the most violent protesters away from security forces.

Divisions in Egypt

But for Morsi, attending to religious conservatives in the country will be a major consideration as his term unfolds.

“Now Salafists are calling him out and saying that he isn’t the most fervent defender of the faith,” said Shadi Hamid, an Egypt expert at the Brookings Doha Center. “That puts him in a bind.”

Salafists who were long repressed under President Hosni Mubarak are now able to follow their strict faith openly. And after the revolution, many Salafists turned to politics after years of assiduously avoiding it. They were the second-largest bloc after the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party in the now-dissolved parliament.

Though Salafists are a diffuse coalition, Morsi and his associates view them as major contenders.

“It’s a bigger group than the Muslim Brotherhood. It’s much bigger,” said a Freedom and Justice Party official who spoke on the condition of anonymity to candidly discuss party strategy. “If we have access to 5 million members, they probably have access to 30 million people. The difference is huge.”

Their influence is large enough that Morsi held back from condemning the assault on the U.S. Embassy in Cairo for days last week, until after a stern phone call from President Obama.

On Saturday, security forces finally cleared Tahrir Square of protesters, using tear gas and water cannons. The government made 220 protest-related arrests Saturday, according to news reports.

But in a measure of the Salafists’ sway, government forces left undisturbed an encampment of supporters of Omar Abdel-Rahman, the blind sheik who is serving a life sentence in a U.S. prison for involvement in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. Those protesters have been dug in near the U.S. Embassy for more than a year.

Changes on the street

On Aziz B’illah Street in northeast Cairo, where Salafist book shops spill onto sidewalks and mannequins wearing jeweled black veils are propped in storefronts, many revel in the freedoms they have won since the revolution but warn that Morsi cannot take their support for granted.

“What happened in Egypt was the minimum response to the movie,” said Abdelrahman Said Kamel, 30, who was selling brightly colored women’s clothing at a street kiosk Saturday and said he had protested at the U.S. Embassy several times this week. “I can’t understand how America is trying to help us economically but insulting our prophet.”

At Walid Eglan’s bookstore, he and a colleague were trying to understand why the American government did not act more forcefully against the makers of the video.

“What happened in Libya gave people more courage to demonstrate at the embassy here” later in the week, Eglan, 38, said, though he added that he disapproved of the violence. “You have to be respectful of the world.”

From his perch on the street, Eglan had watched Mubarak’s state security agents demonstrate their disrespect for his world. For years, watchful security agents waited at street corners to demand identification from bearded men and harass worshipers at the major Salafist mosque that opens onto the middle of the block.

One morning six years ago, he said, truckloads of state security men descended on the street and confiscated the gold-embossed religious texts he sold out of a stand. His first son was just a week old, and Eglan was left to rebuild his life as his wife had another son and then a third.

After state security melted away one day during the revolution last year, life on the street started to revive.

Now, he said, Salafists are on the upswing, with enough power to control the country’s future, even with Morsi, a member of the more-moderate Muslim Brotherhood, trying to project a Western-friendly face to attract help for Egypt’s moribund economy.

In the end, Eglan said, Egyptians know where their president’s sympathies will be oriented. “Morsi?” Eglan said. “He’s a Salafi.”

As for the United States, he said, “America helps Israel. And they helped Mubarak, not the Egyptian people. America helped Mubarak keep Egyptians unemployed, keep them uneducated, keep them uncivilized.”

DeYoung reported from Washington. Haitham Tabei in Cairo, Babak Dehghanpisheh in Beirut and Mohammed Al-Qadhi in Sanaa, Yemen, contributed to this report.

Michael Birnbaum is The Post’s Moscow bureau chief. He previously served as the Berlin correspondent and an education reporter.
Karen DeYoung is associate editor and senior national security correspondent for the Washington Post.
Comments
Show Comments

Get the WorldViews newsletter

Sign up for daily updates from WorldViews.

Most Read World