Pay no attention to these anti-American protests in Cairo

I was in Cairo 48 hours ago when the US embassy was stormed, provoked by a ridiculous trailer for a film, Innocence of Muslims, made by “Sam Bacile” — aka Nakoula Basseley Nakoula, a Coptic Christian in the US — that said a lot of tremendously stupid things about Muhammad and Islam.  Here is my view: ignore the content of these protests entirely because there is no great wave of anti-Americanism sweeping Cairo.

Do you feel that Nakoula Basseley Nakoula represents American opinion on Islam?  No, probably you don’t.  You see him for what he is: a demagogue looking to provoke violent reaction in order to demonstrate the fanaticism of Islam.  That is precisely the mechanism at work on the other side of the equation, too: Muslim demagogues are using this ‘outrage’ to get attention for their cause and radicalize moderate opinion.  It is tactical, that is all.  Demagoguery always generates ‘real’ outrage from people who aren’t in on the plot — witness the Tea Party in the US, where lobbyists like Freedom Works got a generation of hapless old folks to put on tri-corner hats and spew venom about out of control spending — and nothing gets a crowd riled like disrespect for one’s prophet.  But if I left Cairo with one overwhelming impression of this political moment a year and a half on from the revolution it is that all ideologies have been sublimated to the need to make a living.  In Egypt, this means getting tourists to return — I spent an afternoon at Fishawy, a famous cafe in the Khan el-Khalili souk, and saw all of two Western tourists in four hours — so I can promise you that any political demonstration that scares foreigners away is going to burn out from lack of local support.

True, Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi bungled his initial response, which was heavy on the sensitivities of Islam and light on intolerance for an embassy being overrun, but he has not even been in power a hundred days so think of that as a teachable moment for him and his organization, the Muslim Brotherhood.  Until recently, they were the demagogues: stuck in semi-clandestine opposition for decades and trying to use whatever means were available to generate momentum for their cause.  Now they are the government and they are very, very aware that ginning up some disenfranchised youths to throw rocks at your principal aid donor and a major source of tourists and investors is no way out of the morass.  Once we are through this particular spasm, I think Morsi will handle any similar situations in future very differently.

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Another thing not to worry about?  The peace treaty with Israel.  There is no constituency anywhere in Egypt with the capacity to renew hostilities with Israel that has any wish to do so.  This is not because the Egyptian military is stocked with our friends; it is because the military is no longer capable of effectively fighting a war and will do whatever is required not to have that fact revealed to the world.  You might see more rhetorical ambivalence from Morsi than you saw from Mubarak — though an objective assessment of the facts on the ground would suggest there are a number of issues related to Israeli policy that merit challenge — but there has been three decades of non-love between the two countries thus far and it is not killing anyone.

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The photo above comes from the Atlantic, which has a round-up of images from protests around the world — almost all of which, to my eyes, seem to have conspicuously well produced signs and banners.  Some of the pictures are from Benghazi, where four Americans were killed including a US ambassador: this appears to have been quite different from all the other incidents, in which a deliberate ambush that took advantage of the chaos of protests.

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Update (15 Sep):  Well, Morsi changed his approach within 24 hours of writing that and has now cleared the streets around the US embassy in Cairo.  In an op-ed entitled “It’s Not About the Video,” Ross Douthat makes part of the point I made above, that the protests are tactical rather than organic so should not be taken as representative of consensus opinion.  But for an illustration of exactly the wrong questions to be asking, consider this analysis in the New York Times today headlined “U.S. Is Preparing for a Long Siege of Arab Unrest“:

The unrest has suddenly become Mr. Obama’s most serious foreign policy crisis of the election season, and analysts say it is calling into question central tenets of his Middle East policy. Did he do enough throughout the Arab Spring to help the transition to democracy from autocracy? Has he drawn a hard enough line against Islamic extremists? Did his administration fail to address security concerns? Has his outreach to the Muslim world yielded any lasting benefits?

[…I]mages from the past week of American flags being torn down and burned, an Islamic flag being raised and embassies being overrun by angry mobs introduce a volatile element into a re-election effort in which foreign policy has been a strength. Some critics and commentators were already evoking the images of the Iranian hostage crisis that doomed another presidency.

Really?  A small group of people burning the American flag and climbing the gates at the embassy in Cairo and we’re at the Iran hostage crisis?  The groups initiating these protests are doing it because they have failed to gain power through elections and are trying to regain momentum.  They are rivals of Muhammad Morsi and the Egyptian government, not agents of it.  That is why the black and white Salafi flag was hoisted.  Just because they make a loud noise, it doesn’t mean we have to listen — or, even less, treat it as somehow indicative of widespread opinion.  We should listen, instead, to all those millions of Egyptians who are quietly trying to reconcile the hopes they had that the revolution might improve their lives with the reality that so far it has not; or, at least, not materially and in a relatively poor country the cushion that people can draw on to see them through hard times is quite thin.

The right question to be asking is this: what more can we do to help this revolution succeed so that Egyptians can see that free and fair elections and representative government will actually improve their lives?  The revolution in Egypt — which, as I have written before, was really half a revolution that left the military in power — is the best chance the US has had in generations to demonstrate that we actually give a damn what happens to Egyptians.  Not for Israel, not for Al Qaeda, not for stability or anti-communism or missile sales, but because 85 million people deserve better and we should be on their side in getting it.

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