Egypt President Mohamed Mursi said on Thursday he supported peaceful protests but not attacks on embassies after Egyptians, angry at a film deemed insulting to the Prophet Muhammad, climbed into the US embassy in Cairo and tore down the American flag.
Highlighting the challenge facing Mursi, protesters threw stones at police blocking their approach to the fortress-like embassy near Tahrir Square, even as his televised address was broadcast on Thursday. Police fired tear gas back.
Hundreds of demonstrators had gathered in the area but a smaller group of those joined battles with police. The health ministry said 70 people were injured, according to the state news agency, and 23 people were detained.
Many Muslims believe depicting the Prophet is blasphemous. In the past, cases where the Prophet was insulted have stirred condemnation and protests across the Islamic world.
"Expressing opinion, freedom to protest and announcing positions is guaranteed, but without assaulting private or public property, diplomatic missions or embassies," said Mursi, an Islamist who is Egypt's first freely elected president.
He pledged to protect foreigners in Egypt, a comment he repeated during a news conference in Brussels where he was making his first European trip to build ties with European Union states and secure support for Egypt's embattled economy.
The EU offered Egypt macro-economic aid of €500-million and between €150-million and €200-million for economic recovery.
The US embassy assault will test Mursi's handling of ties with the West and particularly the US, a close ally of Egypt under ousted president Hosni Mubarak and which has long been wary of Islamists. Washington is a major aid donor to Cairo. Mubarak was toppled in popular protests last year.
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said on Thursday that the US government had nothing to do with a controversial video about the Prophet Muhammad that triggered the anti-American protests.
"The United States government had absolutely nothing to do with this video. We absolutely reject its content and message," she said at the start of talks with senior Moroccan officials. "To us, to me personally, this video is disgusting and reprehensible. It appears to have a deeply cynical purpose: to denigrate a great religion and to provoke rage."
US President Barack Obama told a Spanish-language network that Egypt's Islamist-led government should not be considered a US ally "but we don't consider them an enemy".
Striking a balance
Mursi also needs to strike a balance by addressing the anger over a film that portrayed the Prophet as a philanderer and religious fake, enraging Muslims across the region.
The US ambassador to Libya and three other staff were killed when the US consulate in Benghazi was attacked on Tuesday. Since then, police have fired tear gas at protesters in Tunisia and demonstrators stormed the US mission in Yemen.
"All of us Egyptians reject any form of attack or insult to the Prophet," Mursi said, while offering his condolences over the killing of the US ambassador and diplomats in Libya.
Mursi said he had spoken to Obama on Thursday. "I affirmed to him the need for deterrent legal measures against those who want to damage relations between peoples, and particularly between the people of Egypt and the people of America," he said.
In another statement, Mursi said he expects "assurances from the US government to prevent any infringement on the sacred".
At least one of the promoters of the film Innocence of Muslims is an Egyptian Coptic Christian who lives in America. Clips of the film have circulated on the internet for weeks.
Clashes with police flared on Wednesday and protesters continued hurling rocks and dodging teargas canisters on Thursday. A Reuters witness said some carried petrol bombs in overnight scuffles. Several police vehicles were torched.
Interior Minister Ahmed Gamal el-Din visited the scene, the state news agency reported.
The US embassy in Cairo was closed for public business again on Thursday. In a security message on its website, the embassy urged US citizens in Egypt to be vigilant and said they should "avoid areas where large gatherings may occur".
The US embassy is close to Tahrir, the cauldron of the anti-Mubarak protests and scene of many protests since. Streets around the square have often become battlegrounds with police.
Washington has a big mission in Egypt, partly because of a huge aid programme that followed Egypt's signing of a peace treaty with Israel in 1979. The US gives $1.3-billion to Egypt's military each year and offers the nation other aid.
The demonstrators were a mixed crowd. Some were angry at the police for barring the way to the embassy. A few were Christians who turned up in solidarity with Muslim compatriots. Others said their main goal was to demonstrate against police repression.
The earlier protest included many backers of ultra-orthodox Islamist groups but there was little sign of them on Thursday.
"We came here because of the insult to the Prophet," said Farag Ragheb (26) clutching stones and fleeing a gas plume. "We were next to the American embassy in a peaceful protest and the police intervened. Don't we have the right to protest?"
The scene was similar to other street battles, though less intense, since Mubarak fell. "They are just the same as before," shouted one young man, pointing to the police cordon.
"We are all revolutionaries and here because of repression of the police," said 25-year-old Yahya, who had stripped off his T-shirt to wrap round his face to protect himself from tear gas. He added: "The Prophet is more important than anything."
A few who were asked said they had seen clips of the film. Several said they had not seen it and did not know its name. Some said it would be wrong to watch the film at all.
The Coptic Orthodox church and Egypt's highest seat of Islamist learning, Al-Azhar, have both condemned the film.
Saudi Arabia on Thursday also condemned the film.
"Saudi Arabia has expressed … its condolences to the [US] for the victims of violent actions in Libya that targeted the American consulate in Benghazi," state news agency SPA reported citing a senior official.
The kingdom also denounced what it called an "irresponsible" group which produced the film deemed insulting to the Prophet Muhammad and condemned "the violent reactions that occurred in a number of countries against American interests."
Police in Nigeria, which faces an Islamist insurgent threat, ordered 24-hour security around all foreign embassies on Thursday after the attack in Libya.
Nigerian authorities fear an Islamist backlash as well, possibly after Friday prayers this week.
"The inspector general of police (IGP), Mohammed Dahiru Abubakar, has placed all police formations across the federation on red alert," a statement from the Nigerian police said.
"The IGP has directed … 24-hour water-tight security in and around all embassies and foreign missions in Nigeria as well as other vulnerable targets."
The Nigerian Islamist sect Boko Haram has killed hundreds of people this year as it aims to revive an ancient Islamic state in the modern West country of 160-million people, split roughly evenly between Muslims and Christians.
Boko Haram bombed the offices of Nigerian newspaper This Day in April because of an article written years before about the Miss World beauty pageant and the Prophet Muhammad that they said was blasphemous to Islam.
The sect also carried out a suicide bombing on the UN building in the capital Abuja last year.
The US embassy in Abuja said security was at heightened levels there but that it had been that way for several months anyway.
The attacks this week in several Arab states were by groups who blame the US government for the film called the Innocence of Muslims, by a US-Israeli director, in which he described Islam as a cancer. It has been circulating online for weeks. – Reuters