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The Nature of Muslim Protests and Police Response to Disorder

September 14, 2012 at 12:00 AM EST
Jeffrey Brown talks to McClatchy Newspaper's Nancy Youssef, who explains the nature of the Muslim protests and police response throughout Middle East and Africa. Then, International Crisis Group's Robert Malley argues the protests and disorder are larger signs of the economic and security vacuum created by the Arab Spring.
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TRANSCRIPT

JEFFREY BROWN: A short time ago, I spoke to Nancy Youssef of McClatchy Newspapers. She’s based in Cairo and has been reporting on the protests in Egypt and the wider region.

Nancy, welcome back.

There were conflicting reports about whether the Muslim Brotherhood canceled calls for a larger protest today or merely called for it to be more peaceful. What do you know? What did you see today?

NANCY YOUSSEF, McClatchy Newspapers: Well, about an hour before protests were supposed to start here — remember, Friday’s the traditional day for protesting that happens after prayer — the Muslim Brotherhood put out a tweet and a Facebook message.

It said, let’s not have the kind of protest that we were calling for, which would have meant hundreds of thousands of people throughout Egypt, but instead called for a peaceful demonstration.

So it was a bit vague in terms of what they were asking their members to do. But I can tell you, on the streets here in Cairo it was clear that the Muslim Brotherhood following wasn’t a part of today’s demonstrations. It was made up mostly of young — young men.

JEFFREY BROWN: And do you know what was behind that call from the Brotherhood, why they seemed to want to tamp things down a bit?

NANCY YOUSSEF: Yes.

We started to see this actually after Tuesday when the initial protests began. And at that time, many Islamist groups were calling for their followers to come out and condemn this movie.

I think a lot of them were taken by surprise at the scale and the violence that was behind them. And I think there was an understanding that reacting violently to the movie really hurt not only the message, but also split within their base.

I talked to a number of Egyptians here who said that one wrong shouldn’t be met by another.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, in Cairo, and in some of the other cities in the region where you have been able to talk to people, the protesters that did get out there, how organized did they seem to be? And the response from the police and government, how strong was that?

NANCY YOUSSEF: Throughout the region, there seemed to be a consistent response from the police, using tear gas and in some cases, in Tunisia, for example, live rounds, and that — in Tunisia, they were able to eventually thwart back the attack, even after protesters had crossed the outer perimeter.

In Egypt, it was less effective. They would launch tear gas and it would send crowds scurrying, but they always came back. And it actually led to some more chaos in the streets because young men would set trash and other things on fire to try to fend off the fumes.

So, in Yemen, we saw a bit of that today as well. It seemed that the tear gas approach, if you will, worked a little bit, but not enough to really quell the crowd.

JEFFREY BROWN: And, in Egypt, we saw how the — we reported on the talk that President Obama had with President Morsi, apparently taking a hard line about his initial lack of response on the attacks on the embassy.

Where do relations stand now? Are they strained, as far as you can tell?

NANCY YOUSSEF: It’s very clear that there is a strain because, at the end of the day, I think that there’s a real lack of trust among Americans that the Egyptians are committee to securing their embassy.

Remember, when the attack happened on Tuesday, and when they were able to breach the wall, the embassy was guarded primarily by Egyptian guards.

And they essentially disappeared, allowing — allowing Egyptians to cross over, scale that wall, put a ladder against the flagpole, climb up it, grab the American flag, and bring it over the wall to tear it up and burn, so — and burn it.

So there is a feeling here that there is a break in relations. I think the comment that President Obama made to Telemundo that Egypt was neither an ally nor an enemy further strained those relations, even as the White House tried to push it back yesterday. The pushback didn’t arrive in Cairo. The original message did.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Nancy Youssef in Cairo, thanks so much.

NANCY YOUSSEF: Sure.

JEFFREY BROWN: And for an update and perspective from Libya, where all this started earlier this week, I spoke to Rob Malley in Tripoli. He’s a former director for Near East affairs at the National Security Council, now with the nongovernmental organization the International Crisis Group.

Rob Malley, so what is the atmosphere there these few days after the attack on the embassy?

ROBERT MALLEY, International Crisis Group: Well, you know, in some ways, obviously the most tragic and dramatic event occurred in Benghazi and Libya.

But since then, the atmosphere might have been one of the least radical, least violent in the region, partly because there is a sense of gratitude towards the United States because of the role it played in toppling Colonel Gadhafi, but also because I could say, from every conversation I have had with every Libyan here over the last three, four days, a sense of shock and dismay and embarrassment at what happened, at the killing of the U.S. ambassador.

And I think that has really been a wakeup call for many here who, in fact, want to take action now against these militias and armed groups. Whether they are able to do it or not is another question.

JEFFREY BROWN: Are you picking up any more about who was responsible, who’s being looked at, who is being discussed over there?

ROBERT MALLEY: I mean, it is early. Most people assume that it’s a radical jihadist group which is known here and which now some of the militias are going after.

But, you know, there is really a broader problem here. The problem is that, since the fall of Gadhafi, the authorities are relying not on their own security forces, because they don’t have any. They have subcontracted security to militias and armed groups because they need someone to step in.

But those very forces are the ones that are fueling the instability and the violence. So, in some ways, it is a vicious circle. Until the state can have its own police, its own security forces which are loyal only to the state, it really won’t be able to have a handle on the security situation, and you’re going to see them relying on these other groups, and with the proliferation of weapons that exists in this country, it is going to remain volatile for some time.

JEFFREY BROWN: What about the security of the U.S. presence there and throughout the region? And here I’m tapping into your experience throughout the region and in Washington.

Based on that, what is going on, do you think now, in terms of finding ways, better ways to protect our people and embassies in the region?

ROBERT MALLEY: Well, I think that sort of there is a broader theme here which people have to — we all have to sort of come to terms with, which is that the Arab uprisings have brought many benefits to many people.

But, at the same time, they have left behind an economic, a security and a political vacuum, an economic vacuum because in many of these countries, you have young, alienated, frustrated, unemployed people who don’t have jobs — that is particularly the case in Egypt and Tunisia — a security vacuum, because in a number of these countries the security forces have either been completely disbanded — that’s been the case in Libya — or are now feeling that they were the target of the uprisings, and they are not about to play a role in trying to help the new authorities restore order.

And that’s the case in Egypt and in Tunisia.

JEFFREY BROWN: And let me ask you briefly, Rob, is there anything when you — in that context, when you look at these demonstrations in the region, is there anything anyone can do now to calm the situation?

ROBERT MALLEY: Well, in the very short term, I think those who have to calm the situation are the authorities on the ground.

And in particular, if you — again, in two of the cases where things are most volatile in Egypt and in Tunisia, you have Islamist governments who are dealing with Islamist — radical Islamist protesters.

That creates some dilemma, because they don’t want to be seen as betraying the very religious values upon which the ideology is based. But they also don’t want to see disorder, because they want to stand for security and safety in their country.

But they’re the ones — and they need a religious message, political message to calm the situation down and to really actually try to restore order.

JEFFREY BROWN: Rob Malley in Tripoli, thanks so much.