Isobel Coleman

Democracy in Development

Coleman maps the intersections between political reform, economic growth, and U.S. policy in the developing world.

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Violence and Freedom of Speech in Egypt and Libya

by Isobel Coleman
September 12, 2012

An interior view of the U.S. consulate, which was attacked and set on fire by gunmen yesterday, in Benghazi on September 12, 2012 (Esam Al-Fetori/Courtesy Reuters). An interior view of the U.S. consulate, which was attacked and set on fire by gunmen yesterday, in Benghazi on September 12, 2012 (Esam Al-Fetori/Courtesy Reuters).


In the past 24 hours, protesters scaled the walls of the U.S. Embassy in Cairo and militants orchestrated a brutal attack on the American consulate in Benghazi. In a video today on (below and here), I discuss the protests in Egypt and the deplorable terrorist act in Libya that killed Ambassador Christopher Stevens. Though the uproar in both places is ostensibly linked to an incendiary film that disparages Islam, the underlying causes in each place are considerably different. Religious sentiment and tensions fueled the fairly peaceful protests in Egypt, but in Libya a heavily-armed terrorist group supportive of al-Qaeda executed what seemed to be a well-planned attack perhaps timed to coincide with the 9/11 anniversary. The protests against the film were likely an additional subterfuge.

Despite everything that’s happened, the full impact of the film is yet to be seen. As I write on today:

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.

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 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.

You can read the full article here.

Post a Comment 4 Comments

  • Posted by John Featherstone

    More like Chaos in Development.

  • Posted by Imran Riffat

    Let me begin by an unconditional condemnation of the “incendiary film that disparages Islam”. It seems that posting the clip on YouTube was motivated by mischievous intentions. Whoever is responsible for it has certainly failed to honor and value the responsibilities of global citizenship. Right to freedom of expression is one thing but every right implies a responsibility as well.

    The reaction of those who are offended by the “offensive” clip being posted on YouTube is, to say the least, maddening. The video clip was not posted by the US government. Hence the protest, however valid (or invalid), that manifests itself in bloody killings of officials of the US government, an attack on its embassies, and the burning of the US flag is totally unacceptable. The countries where such events have taken place, or are likely to occur (i.e., Yemen today) have deeply embedded socio-economic problems – largely of their own making – and the insurmountable mountain that stands before the masses in these countries leads to such barbaric behavior. Religious intolerance in the Islamic world – Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, to quote only two of many examples – affords these societies the false sense of comfort to be in denial about the other serious problems that have to be dealt with.

    The US must continue to protect its interests. Neither should it be in cahoots with corrupt rulers like Karzai nor allow unwise leaders like Netanyahu to bulldoze its foreign policy. Our actions should be spurred by what is in the best interests of the US.

  • Posted by Christina ASquith

    Thanks Isobel for the nuanced take on what’s happening in the “Arab world”, a region so diverse and yet always lumped together by the media.

    These attacks in Libya, orchestrated by a small minority of radicals, don’t seem to represent the sentiment of the Libyan masses towards the US. NBC covered some pro-US marches in Benghazi last week- I suspect that’s how most feel and the US and public opinion must be careful not to react to the actions of a few radicals, who no more represent Libya than a youtube video insulting Prophet Mohammed represents Western opinion.

  • Posted by Isobel Coleman

    Thank you commenting. I agree that fostering religious tolerance will be one of the great challenges for the transitioning countries in the Arab world.

    On a related topic, last week, I wrote about Pakistan’s blasphemy laws and the obstacles to reforming them:

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