CAIRO — An unprecedented wave of anti-American violence swept across Africa, Asia and the Middle East on Friday, with protesters angered by an amateurish video that mocks the founder of Islam storming and scorching U.S. embassies in Tunisia and Sudan, ransacking a German embassy in Sudan, and setting a fast food restaurant ablaze in Lebanon.
In all, there were protests in at least 23 nations, stretching from Morocco to Indonesia and from London to Mogadishu, Somalia. At least seven people died from the violence.
The explosion of demonstrations left the Obama administration scrambling both to halt the attacks and to defend its actions in the midst of a hard-fought election campaign where questions of foreign policy had largely taken a backseat. But there seemed to be no way to calm anger over a video clip whose production and dissemination the United States had nothing to do with and whose origins are still largely uncertain.
U.S. officials took pains to separate American policies from the explosion of violence, the worst manifestation of which was the death of the U.S. ambassador to Libya and three other Americans in an attack in Benghazi, Libya, that coincided with Tuesday’s 11th anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the United States.
“The unrest we’ve seen around the region has been in reaction to a video that Muslims – many Muslims – find offensive,” White House spokesman Jay Carney told reporters in Washington. “And while the violence is reprehensible and unjustified, it is not a reaction to the 9/11 anniversary that we know of or to U.S. policy.”
“The U.S. government has nothing to do with this video,” State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland emphasized during a briefing for reporters.
The worst violence Friday came in Tunisia, where last year’s Arab Spring began with the toppling of President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, and in Sudan, where, in contrast, Arab Spring protests against the government of President Omar Bashir fizzled rapidly.
In Tunis, Tunisia’s capital, protesters made it inside the U.S. Embassy compound, despite local police use of tear gas and live ammunition to hold them at bay. They set parts of the compound on fire, raised an Islamist flag, smashed windows, and looted computers, phones and other equipment from embassy structures. They then set fire to the American School next door, sending huge plumes of dark smoke over the city, before local police succeeded in pushing them from the compound’s outer perimeter and back into the street.
According to the Tunisian News Agency, two demonstrators were killed and 29 people were injured, including an unknown number of police officers.
Nuland said security forces in Tunis were prepared for a protest, but not the intensity of violence. She said that when demonstrators made it through an exterior perimeter, Tunisia’s presidential guard was sent in and controlled the situation. A secure inner perimeter protected by American security was not breached, she said, and no Americans were injured.
In Sudan, an estimated 5,000 protesters descended on the German Embassy in central Khartoum after Friday prayers, breaking in and setting part of the building on fire. Police used tear gas in an effort to break up the demonstration, but the protesters moved on to the nearby British Embassy, where they threw rocks but were unable to enter the building.
The protests continued at the fortress-like U.S. Embassy, which, unlike the German and British missions, is outside the city center for security reasons. But there, Sudanese police who had been pre-positioned confronted the demonstrators with tear gas.
Still, Nuland said, at least three protesters reached the top of an embassy complex wall before Sudanese security moved them back to the streets below. One embassy spokesman, who asked not to be identified because of the sensitivity of the situation, said some embassy property was damaged but added that reports of a “major breach” were inaccurate.
Most U.S. employees were not in the embassy because Friday is not a work day in Sudan, and there were no reports of injuries to Americans.
In Egypt’s restive Sinai, protesters gathered in front of a U.N. peacekeeping base for what started as a peaceful protest. But the gathering quickly turned violent, as the protesters breached the fence surrounding the camp, began shooting, set a truck on fire, and raised a jihadi flag on a tower. Two camp soldiers fired back and injured two protesters. Egyptian forces arrived, sending protesters scurrying.
Two Colombian soldiers inside were injured by rocks thrown at them.
The complexity of the situation was evident in Egypt, where on Tuesday demonstrators had scaled the 12-foot wall that surrounds the U.S. Embassy compound in Cairo and tore down the American flag in anger over the video, a crude 14-minute clip posted online that depicts Muhammad as a perverse womanizer.
Security near the embassy was noticeably tighter on Friday, after President Barack Obama had what White House spokesman Carney called “an important conversation” with Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi “about the need to protect our embassy and our personnel in Cairo and the need to denounce the violence.”
Carney said Obama was “very clear with President Morsi about Egypt’s responsibilities as a host nation to provide security to diplomatic facilities and diplomatic personnel.” After the conversation, Morsi for the first time denounced the embassy attack and a key member of the Muslim Brotherhood, of which Morsi was a member before he ascended to the presidency, apologized for the violence in a letter published in The New York Times.
Protesters converging on the embassy Friday also found a physical manifestation of the new Egyptian attitude – a hurriedly constructed wall on the road leading to the embassy intended to allow security forces to better defend the compound against attacks. On Friday, security forces launched volley after volley of tear gas at demonstrators who approached it.
But whether that will be enough to halt the demonstrations remained to be seen. Standing in front of the new wall, the demonstrators’ demands were a moving target. Some said they wanted the United States to apologize for the video. Told that both Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had condemned the video earlier this week, they then said they wanted an investigation. Told that the U.S. was looking into the video, they said they wanted it removed from YouTube, a step outside U.S. government control.
In the end, many made unattainable demands – the shutting down of U.S. embassies across the region or the death of those who made the film. Few had actually seen the video.
“The U.S. should apologize to the whole Islamic community. And those Copts should be put to trial and they should be hanged,” said Mohammed Ahmed, 28, a chef, referring to two Coptic Christians in the United States who’ve been linked to the video. Plumes of tear gas hovered overhead as he spoke and, nearby, other young men were setting fires. The streets were littered with rocks and other debris thrown at and by security forces.
Nearby, Mustafa Amin, 26, an unemployed teaching school graduate, proposed an international law “that would criminalize any assault on the prophet. And it should be under the supervision of the United Nations.”
Egypt was not alone in stepping up security outside U.S. diplomatic facilities. In Yemen’s capital, Sanaa, police armed with water cannons made heavy use of tear gas and warning shots to keep protesters from reaching the U.S. Embassy, where on Thursday angry demonstrators had stormed the heavily guarded compound.
Diplomatic outposts were not the only American symbols targeted on Friday. In Tripoli, Lebanon, protesters set fire to a building containing Hardees and KFC restaurants. One person died in the blaze.
There were also peaceful demonstrations. In Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim nation, thousands of protesters gathered in front of the U.S. Embassy in Jakarta without violence.
Meanwhile, Obama administration officials worked hard to dispel a series of rumors that flew around the Internet, from allegations that Marines at embassies around the world had been ordered not to carry live ammunition to allegations that the embassy in Cairo had been warned about the likelihood of violence but had failed to take precautions.
A U.S. intelligence official acknowledged that a cable had been sent to the embassy in Cairo advising diplomats that the video, which had been on the Internet since July, had been receiving increasing attention. But the official, who asked not to be identified because he was not authorized to discuss the matter, said the cable was not a warning of upcoming violence.
“It was a very routine type of cable drawing attention to the video,” the official said. “We look at these things and we can see when something is getting attention. You begin to see it start to get attention, there is chatter, people looking at it. We basically said that it’s getting more attention and we want you to be aware.”
Nuland, briefing reporters in Washington, said that since Tuesday, 65 American embassies have issued 88 security warnings to Americans living in their areas reminding them of the tense climate.