The Obama administration is insisting that the assault on the US Embassy in Egypt, and the subsequent riots and attacks elsewhere in the Middle East, were "absolutely" about an obscure film, The Innocence of Muslims, that to date has only appeared in highly abridged form. Meanwhile, critics of the administration are blaming this week's violence on a policy of appeasement. The truth is, a better guide to the causes of the recent assault on the US Embassy can be found in the public spat between a Salafist preacher and Egyptian movie star, Ilham Shahin.
Shahin, a famous Egyptian actress who was staunchly supportive of former President Hosni Mubarak during last year's revolution that eventually toppled him, was recently accused by a Salafist preacher of "adultery" over some romantic scenes she'd been in. The attack on the Egyptian film star raised fears about the clout of radical Islamic forces in post-Mubarak Egypt. Where was Egypt's newly elected president from the Muslim Brotherhood, Mohammad Morsi, in this important debate? To the ire of the Salafists, Morsi asked his spokesman to call the actress and express his full support.
This episode highlighted the rivalry that exists between Morsi and, more broadly, the Muslim Brotherhood on the one hand, and the Salafists on the other. What we witnessed last week with the siege of the US Embassy in Cairo, with all its violence and demagogy, was an expression of this simmering rivalry. In other words, despite the appearance of a showdown between Islamic societies and the West, it was rather a classic manifestation of local inter-Arab power politics.
There's a perception in Egypt, one that extends beyond the Salafists to secular nationalist and left-liberal circles, that Morsi has a de facto agreement with Washington. Former editor of al-Dustour Ibrahim Issa summed up this view last week. The unwritten agreement, Issa wrote, involves a commitment on the part of Morsi to maintain relations with Israel and safeguard its security, including keeping Hamas on a leash and under Egypt's umbrella. It also involves containing the Salafists and protecting the Copts.
Put differently, Morsi risks being regarded as the Muslim Brotherhood version of Mubarak. This makes him a vulnerable target for Salafist populism. As several analysts have pointed out, it was Morsi's Salafist opponents who had called for moving on the US Embassy well before news of the video had even surfaced.
These groups saw an opening to embarrass the Egyptian president by outbidding him on Muslim causes, thereby presenting him with a choice of either standing up for the prophet of Islam, or for his relations with the US, and thus appear as another American quisling like Mubarak.
That this indeed was the underlying dynamic was evident in the back and forth between Salafist and Muslim Brotherhood politicians. For instance, Jamal Saber, campaign manager for Salafist politician and one-time presidential candidate Hazem Abu Ismail, chided the Brotherhood for wishing to deal with the matter "only on a political basis." Stated differently, Saber was contending that the Brotherhood was prioritizing politics-i.e., diplomatic ties with the US-over the honor of the prophet.