A day at the protests at the American Embassy in Cairo

At this very moment, Americans are piling into movie theaters, cheering through their popcorn at the notion of the Islamic prophet as a goat-romancing child molester, and sending “The Innocence of Muslims” to the top of the box office charts. It’s an evil that must be stopped at all costs, or at least, “before the film is released in European cinemas,” urges Ahmed Ibrahim as, behind him, three of his colleagues collect rocks off the rubble-strewn street and dump them onto an improvised sling — a tattered and stained Egyptian flag. 

Like the hundreds of adolescents surrounding him, 23-year-old Ibrahim claims to have spent the last three days hurling rocks at — and surviving lethal attacks by — the security forces that have not only “prevented the Islamic population from defending their honor,” but, worse yet, chosen to “align themselves with the American pigs, rather than remain loyal to their own religion.” As the four young men each grab a corner of the cloth and rush off with a flagful of ammunition, they pick up on the chant roaring over the scene, a holdover from the 2011 revolution, mutated to fit the occasion, “The people say anything but the Prophet.”

Misguided as their efforts may be — like most protesters at the scene, Ibrahim believes “The Innocence of Muslims” is a Hollywood production that, like any local or international film released in Egypt, and presumably elsewhere, passes through several rounds of censorship and receives official state approval from its own government before seeing the light of day — there is little doubt over the severity of the situation, and its potential fallout. Already, yet another wall has been erected by security forces at the head of the street leading to the embassy in order to keep groups of Egyptians from murdering each other and deepening an international crisis, and the downtown stretch between Tahrir and the US Embassy is back to looking like a war zone, developments which don’t seem to have had any effect in sobering up infuriated protesters.

“What do you mean ‘smart’ course of action?” one protester roars at Egypt Independent’s suggestion. “The film has already been made; it exists. Our only course of action is war, because this was an act of war.”

“This is our Prophet, our religion. Or are you not Muslim?” he challenged.

“We want a formal apology from [US President Barack] Obama, we want the filmmakers executed, and we want all copies of the film destroyed,” another protester cut in. “All those tapes must be burned.”

As news of the film broke out earlier in the week, and furor over its content and the intention of its makers mounted, the Egyptian population — along with the rest of the world — held its breath in anticipation for Friday’s planned protests, which would once again test the bitterly strained relationship between protesters and police forces.

Despite promises by the Muslim Brotherhood — which had announced it would organize peaceful protests across the nation following noon prayers, but not in Tahrir or within the vicinity of the American Embassy, so as to avoid any altercations with security forces assigned with protecting it — the square was packed as noon prayers were set to begin, and protesters — already vocalizing their rage through chants — gathered to hear the imam vow that Muslims would soon “vanquish the cross-carrying armies as we have before,” a reference to the Crusades which was met with much cheering. No sooner had prayers ended than the crowd pulled together and announced it was heading to the embassy.

The procession was an unusual sight; approximately 300 individuals of all ages — including children — mostly dressed in rags or heavily worn shirts and galabeyas, carrying signs that either praised Prophet Mohamed or condemned the hypocrisy behind the American invention of “freedom of expression” — one memorable sign read, in English, “If America says they understand freedom of expression, they must be coooooool (sic) with us.” Adding to their surreal appearance was the fact that, besides headbands, many of the protesters had wrapped their heads in the material that had been distributed earlier in the day to use as prayer rugs; in this case, shiny silver-and-gold gift wrapping paper. Weaving in and out of the group, a smaller crowd of vendors did their best to sell “double-faced Prophet love cards” — laminated index cards that bore Quranic phrases and statements of adoration to the Prophet on either side. “You hang it from your rear-view mirror,” one vendor explained, “or wear it around your neck.”

The group marched slowly, waving flags — some of Saudi Arabia, others, black with the phrase “There is no God but God,” which they also chanted. Pauses between the lines of a chant were peppered with desperate screams, either echoes of what was just sung, or howls of “I love you, Prophet!” and “God is great!” Fistfights broke out, repeatedly, for a variety of unrelated reasons. Spitting blood, waving a shard of glass, and just barely held apart from his opponent who had been gashed across the forehead, one wild-eyed man screamed: “We’re here for the Prophet, and you’re pimping out prostitutes, you son of a bitch!”

To which the opponent replied, “I’ll pimp out your mother,” giving the first man the motivation needed to break free and attack again.

Mocking cries of “peaceful, peaceful” — used as a statement of intent by protesters in early 2011 — were made and laughed at as the procession passed Omar Makram mosque, where a few individuals attempted to dissuade them from continuing to the walled-in embassy, but to little avail. “You’re going to set fire to more police cars?” an older man shouted from his spot on the sidewalk. “Who do you think ends up paying for those cars? The Egyptian people can’t even afford to eat, but they’re burning their country down. I hope the Prophet had a sense of humor!” The procession paid him no attention, but another elderly man did, replying, “As long as you’re unable to feed yourself and reaching out to others, you’ll always be worthless,” before concluding, “Fuck the USAID for turning us into savages.”

Not everyone, however, is as willing to blame the Americans. Rushing to board up the windows to the wig store where he works, and which stands at the corner of the wall separating protesters from the embassy and security forces surrounding it, an employee wishing to be identified only as “Ibramovich,” said, “This is the Egyptian character, this is typical. We were in the right at the beginning of this whole mess, and we had the support of the international community, but we pissed that away by choosing to act like the savages we are.”

“Try talking to these kids down there,” he gestures towards the crowd at the entrance to his store, “and see how far that gets you.”

Apparently, not very far. “You try to talk sense to these people, and you’re likely to get hurt,” fumes Tarek Farouk, a 27-year-old and one of the few maintaining a frontline of their own, one that separates the crowds in Tahrir from the ones throwing rocks and chunks of glass and metal over the wall and at security forces. Desperate to end the violence, Farouk and his colleagues have tried pleading with, and physically preventing, people from crossing over to confront the state security forces, but it’s a losing battle.

Behind him, the stream of airborne rocks is endless, young men cheering every time the shattering of glass is heard, riding on each other’s shoulders to make their insults more audible, taking apart the neighborhood around them in the hopes that its broken pieces would serve as ammunition once they run out of rocks.

“What do these people know of the Prophet?” sighs Farouk.

To his left, his colleague asks, “What Prophet? You think any of these people care about religion?” He turned to Egypt Independent and added, “You’d think these were the most pious people on Earth, but we were here for dawn prayers and we can tell you not a single one of them stopped throwing rocks long enough to pray.”

Moments later, two teens rush past, carrying a child with blood spurting out between the fingers he has over his right eye.

“Good,” Farouk says. “Serves him right. I hope they all die. Those little kids are all hired to add to the chaos.”

When asked hired by whom, Farouk shrugs.

A few feet away, 51-year-old Reda Mohamed is wandering amongst the rock-throwing youth, sharing words of encouragement. When asked how attacking the US Embassy makes any sense, he replies flatly, “It’s their embassy.” After listening to an extremely brief explanation of how unrelated the embassy remains to the filmmakers, Mohamed, without the slightest change of tone or expression, states, “It’s wrong to attack the embassy.” But then the conversation is interrupted by two younger men who claim the film was financed, in part at least, by the US government. “See?” Mohamed replies with a look of disgust, before following the two men in the direction of the temporarily guarded embassy.

The crowd erupts shortly afterwards, its attention drawn to the two foreign men being quickly escorted from the scene by a small group of Egyptians. One of the men has had his green t-shirt torn; his left shoulder and part of his chest are exposed. Within seconds, hundreds of protesters have descended upon them, some laughing, others clearly enraged, thumping the foreigners on the head, piling on top of them and trying to wrestle them to the ground while bystanders shout for help and the prevalence of common sense. “You’re beating random foreigners, you dogs!” one woman in a burqa screams. For several moments, the foreign men are completely obscured by a flurry of fists and bodies, until enough individuals come to their aid and manage to extract them from the cluster. The small group escapes and is chased out of sight, with those left behind clearly struggling to come to terms with what they had just witnessed. One woman breaks down into tears, men mutter in disbelief, and an adolescent admonishes nobody in particular, shouting, “I know those men — one is Italian, the other is Dutch. They have nothing to do with this, they’re not even Americans.”

“So what if they were?” one older man bursts, before repeating the question again at a louder volume. “Have we all gone crazy?”

An answer can be found at the wall, where Hassan Eid, a protester who claims to have been “suffering” at the scene “for the past 10 days” — despite the fact that the violence began on Tuesday night — continues to bark orders at his rock-throwing comrades.

“People who say this is crazy have no honor, or religion,” he asserts. “What is so crazy about protecting your honor, and protecting what is most sacred in all our lives? This is not crazy. This is a new age, under a new regime. And this is our new way of protesting.”

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