The Corner

Several Questions on Cairo and Benghazi

First: As the Washington Post reported, “A group of protesters scaled the wall of the U.S. Embassy in Cairo on Tuesday evening and entered its outer grounds, pulled down an American flag, then tried to burn it outside the embassy walls, according to witnesses.” My own sources suggest that attackers were in the embassy grounds for hours before they were finally expelled.

It is fair to ask why police protection was not provided until it was too late. Protection of foreign embassies is an elementary responsibility of governments, and one we should insist that Mr. Morsi’s new Muslim Brotherhood government fulfill. The U.S. government should demand an apology, and demand that such a failure never be repeated.

Where is Egypt’s new president, Mohammed Morsi? Why has he not gone on Egyptian TV to express outrage? Coming from a Muslim Brotherhood leader that would be significant; its absence is even more significant. On the occasion of Mr. Obama’s forthcoming meeting with Morsi at the United Nations, this should be on top of the agenda — and the American complaint and Egyptian apology and pledge to do better should be exchanged, publicly, on camera. We give Egypt over a billion dollars a year in military aid. Members of Congress may wish to direct that aid, henceforth, to elements of the Egyptian police and military that are supposed to protect embassies. Or to suspend it until we learn how the Egyptian security services plan to protect our missions there.

Second: The protest had been announced in advance and was related to an apparently offensive film created somewhere in the United States. What did the State Department say to our embassies around the world, and particularly in the Islamic world, about risks and protective steps? Were all “Emergency Action Committees” told to convene? Were embassies told to request additional local police protection? Did State learn the lessons of the Danish cartoon crisis, or did it fall down on the job?

Third: By choosing to attack the U.S. embassy on the anniversary of 9/11, the Egyptian protesters were expressing their support not for the victims but for the perpetrators of that act of terror and mass murder. In Benghazi our ambassador and several others were murdered on 9/11. I have yet to see a wave of condemnation from Islamic religious leaders, and this is needed. Condemnations from Washington will have no impact on rioters and potential rioters, while condemnations from their own religious leaders might. The issue is a simple one: Is the taking of life an appropriate response to hurt feelings?

Fourth: That brings us to Cairo embassy’s statement issued before the riots there:

The Embassy of the United States in Cairo condemns the continuing efforts by misguided individuals to hurt the religious feelings of Muslims — as we condemn efforts to offend believers of all religions. Today, the 11th anniversary of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States, Americans are honoring our patriots and those who serve our nation as the fitting response to the enemies of democracy. Respect for religious beliefs is a cornerstone of American democracy. We firmly reject the actions by those who abuse the universal right of free speech to hurt the religious beliefs of others.

This is a bizarre statement to make on 9/11, an event that was not about “hurting feelings” but about murdering Americans. If it was an effort to buy off potential demonstrators by showing respect for their “feelings” as “believers,” of course it failed; such expressions of fear and weakness most often do. We will never be able to apologize enough to make Salafis and Islamist rioters pacified. 

Nina Shea explained the deeper problem with the embassy statement here yesterday:

While calling for religious harmony is understandable and welcome, this short statement goes much further: It essentially upholds the Muslim anti-blasphemy standard that the Egyptian government applies in its ban on “insult to heavenly religions,” and that has long been championed by the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) in U.N. resolutions calling for the universal criminalization of religious defamation and in its campaign against all forms of “Islamophobia.” Most U.N. member-states supported these OIC resolutions, but, year in and year out over a decade, the United States has opposed them. The U.S. embassy redefines and limits freedom of speech to that speech which others, and, explicitly Muslims, do not find offensive: The embassy asserts that to “hurt the religious beliefs of others” is to “abuse the universal right of free speech.”

Entirely missing from the embassy’s statement was any reminder that violence is never justified, even when religious “feelings are hurt.” 

Fifth: Muslims, and Islam, are not under assault in Egypt. Christianity and the Coptic community are. If you were an Egyptian Copt watching the assault on the American embassy on TV and then reading the embassy’s statement, would you feel the Americans planned to work hard to protect you and your rights? And given that the Egyptian government will not even protect the American embassy, what are the chances that it will protect Christians in Egypt?

Elliott Abrams is a senior fellow in Middle Eastern Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations and a former deputy national-security adviser.


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