An obscure anti-Islam film entitled "Innocence of Muslims," sparked protests Egypt and Libya on Tuesday, some of which turned violent. The film, which criticizes the Prophet, drew reactions of outrage and condemnation from across the Middle East.
In Libya, the protests turned violent and ended with an attack on the American consulate in Benghazi, in which US ambassador to Libya Christopher Stevens and three other consulate employees were killed. Protesters fired machine-guns and rocket-propelled grenades at the building.
Libya's interim president, Mohammed el-Megarif, apologized for the attack, which he called "cowardly," according to the Associated Press. He said, "We extend our apology to America, the American people and the whole world," and vowed to bring the culprits to justice.
"Many Libyans believe that unrest in their country is in part the work of Gaddafi's loyalists who want to undermine efforts to rebuild the country after last year's ruinous civil war," said the AP.
Libyan newspaper The Tripoli Post noted that Libya's National Congress also condemned the attack, saying it "led to the regrettable injury and death of a number of individuals."
The Libya Herald said there were conflicting accounts about how the violence escalated, with one witness telling the newspaper that protests were entirely peaceful until the police and security forces fired shots into the air to end the protests.
"That angered the protestors who then turned on the police, the demonstrator claimed. One of them, he said, then went to his car, got out a rocket propelled grenade launcher and fired at a police vehicle. However, he missed and the RPG hit the building on Venezia Street instead," said the Libya Herald.
Another witness told the Libya Herald that the protesters were "all Salafists who had turned up to the building intent on causing maximum damage, bringing guns and RPGs with them. He claimed members of the Islamist militia Ansar Al-Sharia were among them. He said that fierce clashes between them and security forces lasted for five hours."
Before the violence in Libya, Egyptian protesters scaled the walls of the Cairo embassy and tore down the American flag.
Reuters reported, "On Tuesday, Egypt's prestigious Al-Azhar mosque and seat of Sunni learning condemned a symbolic 'trial' of the Prophet organized by a US group including Terry Jones, a Christian pastor who triggered riots in Afghanistan in 2010 by threatening to burn the Koran."
Egyptian newspaper Al Ahram said, "Many of the more Islamist-leaning protesters had answered calls by Salafist leader Wesam Abdel-Wareth – who is also the president of Egypt's ultra-conservative Al-Hekma television channel – to protest the film 'Mohammed's trial' at 5 p.m. outside the US embassy in Cairo's Garden City district."
Al Ahram reported that many local churches in Egypt condemned the film, saying it did not represent Egypt's Christian community.
Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood called for peaceful nationwide protests on Friday, according to Agence France Presse, denouncing offenses to the religion and to the Prophet. However, President Mohammed Morsi has not yet issued a statement about the protests or the film.
AFP noted that while American media attributed the film's production to Israeli-American Sam Bacile, some Egyptian media reported that Egyptian Copts living in the US were involved in the production.
Dozens of Palestinians in the Gaza Strip reportedly burned American flags and chanted "Death to America," protesting against the film. The Huffington Post reported that the protest was sponsored by supporters of the Popular Resistance Committees, aligned with Hamas.
Some of the protesters carried swords, axes and black flags, said The HuffPost. Hamas' religious affairs minister, Ismail Radwan, called the film an "insult to the millions of Muslims all over the world."
In Afghanistan, the government gave orders for YouTube to be blocked from the public until the film was removed, said the BBC.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai office released a statement condemning the film, saying it "stoked interfaith enmity and confrontation, and badly impacted the peaceful coexistence between human beings," according to The Wall Street Journal.
The Journal noted that Karzai's statement did not condemn the killings in Libya or call for restraint in protesting the film.
AFP also reported protests at the US embassy in Sudan.