The recent protests at US embassies in over twenty countries were widely attributed to anger against the inflammatory film “Innocence of Muslims.” While many protesters specifically stated that the video had incited them to protest, news outlets, attributing these protests to so-called “Muslim rage” over a derogatory film, are both erroneous and negligent of the larger societal issues that led thousands of Muslim youths to join in the protests. In her recent GSM article, Anne Hobson discussed the political and social grievances in Yemen underlying the protests at the US embassy in Sana’a. In this article, I will discuss the societal factors behind violent protests in Tunisia and Egypt, two countries at the heart of the 2011 Arab Spring. While evidence shows that these protests did not begin organically within the populations of Cairo and Tunis, widespread grievances over governance in Egypt and Tunisia did sustain them.
Before one can identify the social grievances that led some Tunisians and Egyptians to join in the protests, it is imperative to understand how these protests began. Egyptian Salafis manufactured protests, looking to arouse political violence against the US and challenge the US-allied Egyptian government. “Innocence of Muslims” was first introduced into the public consciousness in Egypt by Islamist newscaster Khaled Abdallah, who broadcast the the film’s trailer dubbed in Arabic on September 9, on the Salafi-supported television channel Al-Nas. A few hundred Salafis, who had reportedly been planning to protest at the US embassy on September 11 since before the video was broadcast, led the initial protests. Eventually, they were joined by approximately 1,700 others, mostly young men. Similarly, in Tunisia 300 hard-line Salafis led 1,000 protesters, again mostly young men, in an attack on the US embassy in Tunis.
One must note the limited scope of these protests: very few people in each city protested at the US embassies, as compared to the much greater popular support for the 2011 Arab Spring protests in these two countries. These two events clearly differ in scope, but the Arab Spring protests and the recent protests at US embassies in Tunisia and Egypt share a striking similarity: popular support and participation were driven by public dissatisfaction with governmental actions. We have heard the hypothesis that dissatisfaction with local governments resulted in the limited popular support for these recent protests from Arab government officials themselves, but this hypothesis is most compellingly shown by the correlation between these protests and anti-government unrest in recent months.
In Egypt, relations have been tense between the Egyptian populace and Egyptian security forces since Hosni Mubarak’s ouster. In a manifestation of this tension, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) dissolved the democratically elected (and moderate Islamist-dominated) parliament this past June. Also, in the past months Islamist extremist groups have launched a campaign of increasing violence against the secular Egyptian security forces. While Morsi has taken (largely popular) actions to check the SCAF’s power, his reactions to the US embassy protests indicate that he still walks a fine line by attempting to appease both the Egyptian people and his Western allies. Most recently, the Egyptian parliament has begun drafting a security bill that is reminiscent of Mubarak-era security laws in its repressiveness; the bill would give the interior ministry wide discretion to place citizens under arrest and detain them for an indefinite period of time.
Tunisians are even more disillusioned with their newly elected government, which is dominated by the moderate Islamist Ennahda party. They have demonstrated visible unrest in reaction to the government’s regressive tactics and cronyism. In the central-western city of Kasserine, citizens have rioted, calling for the Ennahda-allied governor to step down for failing to provide the promised support for the families of victims of the 2011 Jasmine Revolution. In the capital city of Tunis, protesters have accused Ennahda of repressing critics under the guise of eliminating elements of the old Ben Ali regime. These claims of repression are supported by the fact that the Ennahda-led government has not lifted the state of emergency under which Tunisia has remained since the revolution. Furthermore, Tunisia’s government is facing a debt crisis that has led it to pass a highly unpopular increase in oil prices, and will likely cause future anti-government discord in the country.
The recent protests in Egypt and Tunisia did not evolve organically from popular anger over an offensive video, nor were they particularly representative of pervasive anti-American rage in these two countries. However, that they garnered even some popular support is noteworthy. Given that these protests correspond with rising tensions in these countries and repressive tactics on the part of their new governments, we as observers should take pause at the state of democratic development in the birthplace of the Arab Spring.