Attacks on Libya and Egypt
Council on Foreign Relations
Council on Foreign Relations
Council on Foreign Relations
BERNARD GWERTZMAN: Hi, I'm Bernard Gwertzman at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York.
And I'm very pleased to have with me two significant experts on the Middle East, Isobel Coleman and Ed Husain.
Isobel is a senior fellow for U.S. foreign policy at the Council on Foreign Relations, and she also directs the council's Civil Society, Markets and Democracy Initiative and the Women and Foreign Policy Program, which is a large amount of work for her.
And Ed Husain is a senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies, where he focuses on trends within Arab Islamism, perceptions of the West in the Arab World and U.S. policy toward the Middle East.
We're going to talk today about the dramatic events of yesterday, the anniversary of 9/11, where you had first a kind of storming of the U.S. embassy in Cairo, where protesters climbed up the walls, took down the U.S. flag, put up an Islamic flag -- there was happily nobody killed, but it was really an affront on U.S. sovereignty obviously; and then we had in Libya, in Benghazi, which -- the U.S. consulate there was stormed by -- it's not clear yet who, but obviously Islamist extremists who had weapons, and in the -- in the aftermath of all this, the U.S. ambassador was killed as well as three other embassy employees.
All this, of course, touched off immense reaction in Washington. The president went on television this morning to say justice will be done in Libya. And it's still unclear exactly who did what, but it's a major development.
I'd like to ask both the speakers to just give sort of introductory remarks on how they see what happened. Isobel, would you like to go first?
ISOBEL COLEMAN: Sure. The two separate incidences initially were being reported together as both occurring in response to the video, which I'm sure all of you are aware of now, that depicts Islam and Muhammad himself in quite a disparaging way. But I think, as the facts unfold in the Libya incident, we can see that these are, in fact, two quite separate incidences of protest and violence.
What happened in Egypt was, in many ways, a protest that had been building for some days over this video. There has been a lot of attention in Egypt about the video. It's been discussed on new shows. It's been dissected by various religious leaders and denounced quite widely. And the protests were building over a couple of days and really escalated yesterday with the scaling of the walls.
What happened in Libya was a very, very different situation. I think you had a well-planned and highly armed attack on the American consulate in Benghazi that underscores how dangerous the situation is in Libya from a security perspective. We've known for a long time since the fall of Gadhafi that there are groups that remain outside the control of the government, that they are well-armed.
There are reports of significant caches of weapons that went missing after the fall of Gadhafi. They have still not been retrieved. We've seen some of those weapons showing up in Mali. We've seen some of them being transported across the border into Egypt and making its way to Sinai and, of course, on from there. And of course, some of the militias themselves are -- continue to be very well-armed.
And this attack was well-coordinated, well-planned and completely overwhelmed the local security force in Benghazi, the Libyan forces, and, of course, overwhelmed what security the Americans had and resulted in these tragic fatalities.
GWERTZMAN: Ed, do you want to take a crack at this too? Who's behind all this?
ED HUSAIN: Sure, Bernie, sure. Thanks, Bernie, for making time, and Isobel, and thank you to all of you on the call today.
Several points: I don't think there is any doubt about the fact that these al-Qaida sympathizers, al-Qaida foot soldiers that are behind this. I don't think we should be looking for membership cards because al-Qaida does not necessarily issue membership cads, but al-Qaida offers a compelling narrative, and these are people who responded to that narrative. And --
GWERTZMAN: But do you think this is related to 9/11?
HUSAIN: Yes. And I'll tell you why: Because there is a mindset in large parts of the Arab world, however disputed it may be in this part of the world, that somehow, America is at war with Islam and Muslims. And that narrative led to 9/11, but that narrative since 9/11 has, in some parts, been bolstered, in other parts been punctured. But it remains a fact that what happened in Iraq with Abu Ghraib, in Guantanamo Bay, the recent burnings of the Quran in Afghanistan, the Ground Zero mosque episode, all of this amplified by al-Qaida and even nonviolent Islamists leads to this perception that America is at war with Islam. This most recent video, to people who adhere and believe -- and believe in that narrative, confirms that, again, here is America at war, as it were, with Islam and Muslims.
And before I make my second point, I just want to say that many of the people involved in this protest were born and raised and came to political maturity under dictatorships. And their default position is somehow government control the action of citizens. Yes, they may be post-Arab Spring, but I don't think many of the foot soldiers yet understand that in the United States and other free countries, you know, citizens are free of government, and government does not interfere in the world of movie productions, because in their countries, thus far, that's the norm. You know, you go to the government and you get approval. So their default assumption is of course the U.S. has somehow endorsed this. Otherwise, why would that be coming out?
My second point --
COLEMAN: Ed, can I -- Ed, can I just jump in there and just echo what you're saying? The -- Mohammed Morsi in Egypt, President Morsi, has just recently come out demanding that the U.S. government prosecute the makers of this video under the law, you know, to the full force that we can prosecute them. To my knowledge, I don't know of any way to prosecute them, you know. (Chuckles.) So there's a real --
GWERTZMAN: You can't.
COLEMAN: -- a real gulf of understanding here, just to echo the point you're making, Ed.
HUSAIN: Sure. No, thank you, Isobel.
But you know, this is -- this is part of the challenge we face, I think, that, you know, because people are freedom activists doesn't mean that they understand, you know, democratic culture and how liberty operates and freedom of expression and the tensions that often has with religious freedom. So you know, these societies are on a journey, and they're learning how to get there. And sadly, this is part of the price.
My second point would be this. I don't think it's right to just say these are, you know, a minority of loony individuals. Yes, the violent element is undoubtedly, you know, a minority section within, you know, Egyptian or Libyan society. But they are responding to a wider mood music, and evidence for that is thus far -- and it's not just Salafis but, you know, Muslim denominations and their religious leaders have failed to condemn the attacks on the embassies. And as Isobel points out, the leader of, you know, the political wing of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, the FJP, who happens to be the president, has in fact turned the tables and asked for the U.S. to prosecute the film producers.
My third point, very briefly, would be that it's interesting to note that there are excellent relations between the U.S. embassy and the Muslim Brotherhood -- and I say that on the basis of, you know, conversations I've had with both parties -- that levels of coordination, even on aspects of messaging, are, you know, mutually, you know, reciprocated and confirmed.
Now that said, what we're seeing here from Morsi and the lack of a coherent statement on what -- you know, how it was wrong for the embassy to be attacked and the lack of an apology indicates there's a real paralysis of the Muslim Brotherhood leadership once again being caught being trying to play politics and keep all sides happy and, at this juncture, thus far, unable to do so. But I have no doubt in due course we'll hear something from Morsi that tries to caveat and keep all sides happy.
GWERTZMAN: I think he'll have to, since he's coming to the General Assembly in a short period of time and supposed to meet with President Obama. I can't believe he won't do something.
But anyway, I think we ought to turn it over to our listeners out there. Can we do that? Hello? Operator?
OPERATOR: Thank you. Ladies and gentlemen, at this time, we would like to open the floor for questions. (Gives queuing instructions.)
GWERTZMAN: Do we have any questions yet?
OPERATOR: Our first question will come from Peter Green, Bloomberg News.
QUESTIONER: Hi. I wanted to ask you if -- what can the U.S. do at this point if, for instance, they identify the groups that were responsible for the attack on the Libyan -- on the mission in Libya?
COLEMAN: Well --
COLEMAN: Well, you know, the most current news that I'm seeing indicates that the U.S. is sending drones over Benghazi, looking for jihadi camps in the desert. I imagine that, you know, this is the first time an ambassador has been killed since 1979. Of course we're in a tense election year. I can only imagine that the Obama administration's going to come out pretty strongly trying to do anything it can to help the Libyan government apprehend the perpetrators of this violence, though there are undoubtedly some significant intelligence resources that are going to be thrown at this, and meanwhile the U.S. is also bolstering security at all of our other embassies, not only in the region but particularly in Libya. I've heard that there are some 50 Marines being dispatched to Tripoli, to the embassy there, you know, just with the eye of trying to shore up security. This is a case I think, a little bit of, you know, the horse having left the gate, but they're clearly concerned about additional attacks, and at this point really helping the Libyan government track down these groups is going to be really important.
GWERTZMAN: Next question.
QUESTIONER: Could I just follow up with one quick thing, though, Bernie? I mean, if the U.S. goes after -- starts bombing Libyans in Libya, is that really going to reduce the violence or is that just going to make it worse? What are the consequences of that?
COLEMAN: I don't anticipate that the U.S. is going to be -- these are intelligence drones that I was talking about. I don't think that the U.S. is going to be bombing. You know, I don't know how this is going to play out, but my guess is that there will be significant intelligence resources thrown at this with the idea of the Libyan government being able to deal with this problem internally.
GWERTZMAN: Thank you.
HUSAIN: I would add to that, if I may, and I'd say that it's important, Bernie, to remember that -- what should not be done. And it's part of the al-Qaida base, if you like, to break the bonds between these newly elected, fledgling governments and the United States. And whatever happens, there should be no retreat, there should be no, you know, spontaneous fear but, you know, greater and deeper involvement with these governments and helping them steer a course that leads to advancing U.S. interests in the region, but also their interests.
And part of this is the struggle or the tug that's going on now with Morsi in the presidential palace unable to say anything because he's got his right-wing flank -- i.e., the Salafi extremists -- to somehow appease, keep on board at the same time for economic interests and regional political interests, to keep the U.S. on board. This is part of the trajectory of growth towards democracy and greater liberty in the region. And we ought not to be afraid by al-Qaida activists, you know, lobbing bombs in our direction, but sort of -- you know, as the president said this morning, I think appropriately -- maintain those bonds and strengthen them.
GWERTZMAN: All right. Next question.
OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question will come from Vivian Salama at The Daily Beast.
QUESTIONER: Hi. Good afternoon. Hello?
GWERTZMAN: Go ahead, shoot.
QUESTIONER: Hi. Thanks. I wanted to ask a question -- you's mentioned briefly about President Morsi and his response -- or sort of odd response to this entire thing. I just wanted to press you a little bit about sort of what your take on that is, or -- anyone who wants to answer.
I mean, is this just a case of, you know, inexperience or is he genuinely under pressure or -- and also, what does this say about sort of the state of the Egyptian government at present that he was so late in responding and his response was a bit -- a bit questionable as well? Thanks.
GWERTZMAN: Ed, would you like to take a crack at that first?
HUSAIN: Sure. I mean, I think there are several factors at play. First is that Morsi has surrounded himself with multiple advisers from different political constituencies that are giving him conflicting advice. And by all accounts, he's not a man known for decisiveness. You know, I think he's exposed to conflicting advice and there's that first tension.
There's a second tension about competing constituencies inside Egypt. He's -- and his party, the Muslim Brotherhood and the FJP, are threatened by those on the Salafi right wing. They can't now vacate this area of debate within Egypt and hand it -- hand this entire debate over the Salafis to be seen to be the defenders of the Prophet, the defenders of Islam, the antagonists against the West.
Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood's street activists would like to have some of that pie too. By saying the right thing on this occasion it means, you know, taking a huge political hit on the -- on the Egyptian streets, and I don't think he's prepared to do that.
And thirdly, to be completely candid, I think -- you know, Morsi's instincts are where the protestors' instincts are. In other words, they consider this as some kind of blasphemous attack on Islam and Muslims and, you know, as they say in the protests, you know, (in Arabic) -- with my soul and my blood I will defend you, oh, Islam. And he's playing to that entire gallery.
But the good news is that, you know, just this week there were leading American businessmen in town, the IMF loan is being negotiated. Without U.S. endorsement that won't happen. They want greater U.S. involvement. And as you say, Bernie, Morsi is coming to New York, you know, shortly for the U.N. General Assembly meeting. So he's, I think, you know, waiting for the fires to calm a little. And it's inevitable that he will say something, but you know, this is the clumsy nature of Egyptian politics at the moment.
COLEMAN: I would just add to that, you know, let's not underestimate the lack of experience in how this is playing out right now. These -- he's not a career politician, this guy, and you know, has not been under, you know, fire and tried by fire in these types of ways. I mean, and this is a very new dynamic that's going on in Egypt, too, where the media and the street and the public opinion and all of these things are much more fluid than they have been in previous times, and everyone's trying to learn how to navigate it.
GWERTZMAN: If I could just add myself, I'd like to ask a question. Doesn't he run the risk of losing a lot of American aid? I can't imagine Congress sitting quietly voting money for Egypt unless there's some really deep apology and some action taken.
COLEMAN: Well --
HUSAIN: Go ahead, Isobel. Go ahead.
COLEMAN: You know, there's not a lot of aid on the table that has -- that's at risk right now. I mean, the biggest thing is this IMF loan which is up for negotiation, which is close to $5 billion. And there's also about a billion dollars of debt relief that is working its way right now through Washington.
Look, Morsi is going to have to play this exactly right that he's trying to walk a fine line. Ultimately nobody was hurt. They did -- it was a breach of security at the embassy, but, you know, they undoubtedly -- why did the U.S. Marines allow these people to scale the walls? You know, there's snipers all over. I mean, I think that they chose not to escalate the violence, which, you know, we're thankful for that because it did end peacefully.
This was not a takeover of the embassy. This was a real breach of security, yes. Morsi is going to have to, you know, smooth the feathers. But I'm not sure that this is going to make -- people in Washington are already skeptical and upset with the situation in Egypt. This doesn't improve the situation by any means, but I'm not sure this is a fundamental reset.
GWERTZMAN: OK. Next question, please.
OPERATOR: Our next question will come from Margaret Warner, PBS NewsHour.
QUESTIONER: Hi. What could you tell us about this group Ansar al-Sharia, which gets described as an al-Qaida-style group? It's described as an Islamist group. And also, is this the same Ansar al-Sharia that's been active in Yemen?
HUSAIN: Ansar al-Sharia has different names in different parts of the Middle East. The Ansar al-Sharia in Yemen or the Ansar al-Sharia in Libya, to the best of my knowledge, is not the same operation. There's also a group operating by a similar name inside Syria. To be completely frank, I'm, you know, not on top of the very last details on this, but Ansar al-Sharia also have franchises in Europe by that name. So, many of these al-Qaida offshoots have names that are similar, and it's difficult to tie them with some kind of centralized leadership.
My only assumption would be in this case that this is a group that's focusing in Libya, not naming itself as, you know, the previous Libyan Islamic fighting group did, along those lines. Beyond that, I wouldn't want to venture anything that's inaccurate.
GWERTZMAN: What does the name mean in English?
HUSAIN: The helpers of Shariah. Ansar means to help, or the helpers.
COLEMAN: And my understanding is that while Ansar al-Sharia has been fingered in the attack, they have not taken responsibility for it, although I may have missed something.
GWERTZMAN: No, I think that's what I read, that they initially took credit for it and then denied it. But anyway.
HUSAIN: My only caution, Bernie, would be this: that, you know, al-Qaida operatives utilize different names in different contexts, you know. And you ban one group and they regather as another group. You ban one website and they come up as something else. And I would urge friends not to get distracted by the different operational names but to focus on the narrative and the ideology to which they call and mobilize people, because it's that narrative and the combination of grievances and facilities and triggers that lead to these things.
And as we're seeing in Syria, you know, a group of 10 men can get together and call themselves -- (inaudible) -- but because they bind to a central narrative, then funds flow, operations start to happen. So it's essentially about the ideas, the grievances and what triggers them into action rather than being sort of duped, as it were, by al-Qaida's operatives giving us different names to focus on.
QUESTIONER: But you all are using the word "al-Qaida," and I just wondered if that's even true. I mean, you wouldn't say that the Salafis are necessarily al-Qaida-linked.
HUSAIN: Yeah, I say that and I freely confess to succumbing to Salafi pressure on this, because there are Salafis that are nonviolent, not least in countries such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar, and the moment you go after the name Salafi, they become upset and they start putting in all kinds of nasty notes. But Salafism has a huge spectrum, and that's a really good question. I just want to say in defense that I use al-Qaida more as a brand name, a philosophy and mindset, you know, rather than al-Qaida HQ in the Hindu Kush mountains or something.
GWERTZMAN: All right. Next --
QUESTIONER: All right, so you don't mean necessarily linked to al-Qaida itself as an organization. You just mean embracing the methods and the -- and the ideology.
HUSAIN: Yeah, the ideology, the grievances and the modus operandi of al-Qaida. And just as a final note, it's worth remembering that that whole narrative, that theological, you know, merge with the political was in existence before al-Qaida came about. So al-Qaida adopted that, and I think al-Qaida's now become shorthand for that entire ideology and its methodology.
QUESTIONER: Thank you.
GWERTZMAN: Next question?
OPERATOR: Next question will come from Carol Williams, Los Angeles Times.
QUESTIONER: Hi. My question is, how well do you think moderate Muslims in some of the more developed countries of the Middle East understand the debate in the United States over freedom of expression versus respect for religious differences? Do most people who are educated and have circulated with Americans or other foreigners understand that this type of video is a work of our lunatic fringe rather than an expression of wider popular sentiment?
GWERTZMAN: Isobel, take a crack at it.
COLEMAN: Yeah, I would think that a good answer is to reflect on how well Americans understand when they're reading about some extremist, you know, overseas -- an Islamic militant or extremist saying or doing things, how representative that is. And I think you have your answer, which is, it's not well understood at all. The fact that Morsi himself is calling for the U.S. to prosecute the makers of the film, to me is an indication that either, you know, he really doesn't understand how our system works here, or, you know, he's just playing this very naively.
But you know, from my travels throughout the region, I constantly get questions from pretty well-educated people who -- which indicate to me that they just really don't understand how our system works. And you know, they will -- the headlines there are dominated by things like Terry Jones and his Koran burning, without a sense that this is, you know, a very isolated case in the U.S. that's -- you know, that we're talking about handfuls of people and that lots of people denounce it here, too.
You know, that sense of debate is lost. That sense of diversity in our system is not understood really at all.
GWERTZMAN: Next question?
OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question will come from Jenny Dubin, NBC News.
QUESTIONER: Hi. Thanks for making time for this. My question is, many Americans, I think, after these events have happened, are going to be asking, what have we wrought, what have we gotten out of the Arab Spring, where do we find ourselves? How would you both respond to that?
HUSAIN: I think that the Arab Spring is still in motion. It's not over. And the Arab Spring has delivered, you know, positive results and negative results. The positives include the fact that the -- large numbers of young, liberal-leaning activists that were on the streets 18 months ago were broadly looking for, you know, four-year terms for their presidents, transparent government, better economic conditions, free trade, better ties with the West. And you know, that's the first time in, you know, almost 70 years we've seen a mass protest across the Arab world that more or less wants to have better ties with the rest of the world but also dignity in Arab societies. And that can only be a positive thing.
So that movement is in motion, but currently, you know, more right-wing conservative elements from Islamist organizations have overtaken that. Time will tell whether the liberal left, as it were, is able to -- or the liberal center is able to gather and regroup in the center.
But that said, there are, you know, many negatives to the Arab Spring too, including, you know, increasing compromises on women's rights, minority rights, religious freedom being compromised, but also the rise of radical and Islamist organizations that exploit the freedom that's appeared. But on balance, what I'd say is what the Arab Spring has really opened up more than anything else is a debate inside Muslims and Islam itself as to what does an Islamic state look like in reality, whether it's Ghannouchi in Tunisia, whether it's the Egyptians and Morsi, nobody's advocated -- or neither of those two yet have gone down the hard-line Shariah route of literalist, you know, implication of Shariah state law. That's a good sign, that that debate is happening. These kind of events can derail the debate and put it into, you know, paths that, you know, the rest of the world is uncomfortable in. So the Arab Spring is still in motion, and time will tell where it all -- where it all -- where it all heads.
GWERTZMAN: Isobel, you've been watching this closely, particularly on the women's questions. What do you find?
COLEMAN: Well, I would concur with Ed that right now what you're seeing is, you know, in some places two steps forward and in some places a couple steps backwards. But overall, you're having some profound and in some ways unprecedented levels of debate in these countries over what does it mean to be an Islamic state, to be an Islamic, quote, Islamic democracy. What does -- how do you reconcile Shariah and women's rights? And many of these questions -- and human rights, and freedom of speech and freedom of religion?
You know, what we're seeing play out today is a microcosm of some of these much larger debates, and it's happening in a -- in a -- in an unfortunate way, but you're witnessing, you know, really some very profound reassessments and debates that are going on that are going to elevate some radical and ugly voices, but that are also going to put wind in the sails of people who've long been thinking about these questions but have been suppressed in the region from talking about them. So I think this is a long overdue examination.
The real dark side of what we're seeing is in -- is in those countries where there is civil war, where there is total, you know, lack of security and chaos. I mean, Syria, I think, is a really, really terrible situation for the future of the whole region, because it does energize, I think, that jihadi narrative. It actually provides a training ground, a recruitment ground, and I would hate to see Libya become another insecure battleground, you know.
I've been quite hopeful about Libya. This could be, you know, a significant wake-up call to the government, that they have to really much more forcefully crack down on some of these armed groups and throw a lot more at it. But you could also -- this could also be the start of a, you know, increasingly violent trend in Libya. So, you know, that would be a really, really, really negative development, not because Libya itself is so critical, but, you know, Libya's position between Tunisia and Egypt, and they're both case studies for whether these transitions can be peaceful and lead to a, you know, more open and prosperous society or not. And dislocation and civil war in Libya, you know, is really going to make it much harder.
GWERTZMAN: Next question.
OPERATOR: Our next question will come from Jenna Lee, Fox News.
QUESTIONER: Thank you again as well. Just a follow up to the last question: you know, we've talked about the Arab Spring as being part of a new revolution, and I'm sure you've seen the comparisons being made to 1979. And I just was curious what you thought about those comparisons, whether or not they worked, whether or not we should proceed with caution, just in general your thoughts on that.
And also thank you for mentioning the Morsi response, because we were looking for that and waiting for that, and I was curious what you think as well for -- in -- the fact that the president hasn't mentioned Egypt in his public statement today and hasn't mentioned Morsi as well. He kept that strictly on Libya, and I was just curious as to your thoughts, maybe, as to why and where it goes from here.
HUSAIN: I would hazard a guess as to why the president abstained from mentioning Egypt, because the U.S. Embassy inside Egypt is on excellent terms thus far with the palace, and -- with the presidential palace, with Morsi's team. And I suspect there's a lot of hard bargaining going on right now as to what should be said, how much ground should be given, what's important to carry an American audience. Nothing short of an apology is being demanded. And I suspect the presidential palace is hitting back by saying, no, we will lose credibility on the ground in Egypt, and therefore we will fail to deliver on Sinai or peace with Israel; you don't want to weaken our hand for the more strategic long-term importance of having the Muslim Brotherhood in power over a short-term apology over an incident at the embassy. I mean, those are the debates that are going on between the palace and the embassy. And in that debate, I think President Obama was perhaps advised by people at the embassy that -- can we please have some more time whether we -- while we work out exactly where we're leading this inside Cairo. So my guess is that's what's playing out between the -- between the different players on the ground in Egypt.
On the question of Iran in 1979 and can this series of Arab uprisings lead to something like Iran, I mean, each country is different. What's going on in Tunisia, for a whole host of reasons, is much more on the, quote/unquote, "progressive" bent of politics when contrasted with the social conservatives that are in charge in Egypt at the moment, and then contrasted with Libya and with Yemen. We're looking at different countries with different dynamics.
You know, one of those countries may well head towards a more theocratic form of government. It's difficult to tell. But one thing's for sure: In Iran, what we had were clerics right at the top, such as Ayatollah Khomeini and others, guiding it; in this case, the clerics have more or less, in most Sunni countries thus far, rendered themselves ineffective simply because they came out and supported the previous governments. And that happened in -- you know, in Yemen as well as in Egypt and well -- as in Tunisia. So the clerics are less prominent.
And secondly, most of these Arab countries are Sunni Arab countries and they don't embrace the "Wilayat al-Faqih" concept that the Iranians have embraced in order to create a theocracy and wait for their messiah to come.
And the third point is this -- and I think this is an important point, especially on the point of Egypt -- and that is that, in my discussions with Muslim Brotherhood leaders -- with one exception, Kamal El Hebawy, who's now been expelled from the Muslim Brotherhood for saying this -- all the others have repeatedly said they're not looking for an Iranian model, they don't want to imbibe the Iranian model; if anything, they're looking towards Turkey. In reality, we'll probably have something between Turkey and Iran which will look something, you know, more Egyptian. But it's interesting to note that they've gone out of their way to jettison the Iranian model for themselves.
COLEMAN: You know, I don't have much to add, other than, you know, I'm sure Ed is exactly right that there's a lot of back -- behind-the-scenes horse-trading that's going on on who's going to say what about the Egyptian situation.
But of course, the situation in Libya is much more critical. I mean, you've had, for the first time since 1979, a U.S. ambassador killed, and it demands, you know, much more serious attention, I think, from the president. Of course, it's also become an election issue, with the Romney campaign saying, you know, that Obama wasn't clear and forceful enough, and statements and restatements on what was said there.
But the -- you know, this -- when you look at it, the situation in Libya is clearer and the situation in Egypt is very sensitive and very tricky. And I think both the Egyptian government and the United States government are trying to walk a fine line there.
GWERTZMAN: Next question?
OPERATOR: Our next question will come from Naomi Choy Smith, CBS News.
QUESTIONER: Hi there. Do you get the sense that these protests have enough momentum to move further throughout the region -- for example, to Afghanistan, where there have been these recent protests regarding the Koran burning?
GWERTZMAN: That's a good question. Ed?
HUSAIN: And it's a good example, too, Bernie, to mention Afghanistan, because I gather Afghanistan has just banned YouTube because they think that people will download this video and then it would --
GWERTZMAN: Oh, really? Interesting.
HUSAIN: -- yeah -- hit the streets again. So Afghanistan is -- you know, is volatile. Pakistan could be volatile.
I would worry about Friday prayers. You know, today's Wednesday; you know, we're 48 hours away. And if the international news media rightly focuses on this issue, it will be picked up by Arab news networks, Pakistani news networks. And you know, Friday could prove to be a difficult day for embassies around the world -- U.S. embassies around the world. But I hope and pray that's not the case. And I'm, again, hopeful that in between now and Friday tensions do calm, and more importantly we get, you know, Muslim clerics calming the situation rather than, A, remaining silent; or, B, trying to stoke the flames. So much could happen between now and Friday or immediately after Friday prayers.
GWERTZMAN: Isobel, hi. Go ahead.
COLEMAN: Yeah, I mean, that's -- you know, we've seen this playbook before, whether it's with the Danish cartoons or with Koran burning or any number of incidents in recent years. These things tend to have a life cycle, and that life cycle is in ways determined by how much leaders -- religious leaders, public figures -- want to fan the flames or not.
I think in Egypt and in several other countries, you're going to see quite a self-interest in not fanning the flames, much beyond what we've already seen, because, you know, these are -- the potential for it to escalate is always there, but of course, in other countries -- Pakistan, Afghanistan -- you do see governments with an interest in -- really in fanning it. And in incidences from the past, you've seen even governments bringing protesters in to march in front of the American embassy, and we -- you know, we know that that could be in the works, you know, that type of escalation.
I think Ed is right that Friday will be an important day. This could gather steam. This could get worse over the next several weeks. And then eventually it dies out, and then there's a period of calm, and then something new comes along. (Laughs.) So it's -- it is a -- it is a life cycle of these types of events.
GWERTZMAN: Next question?
OPERATOR: (Gives queuing instructions.) Our next question will come from Bryan Bender, Boston Globe.
QUESTIONER: Thanks again for doing this. I'm going to disregard my own best advice and ask a political-related question. Obviously, these incidents have, not surprisingly, become fodder for the presidential campaign, and I'm curious -- and I'll understand if you guys don't want to take a crack at this, but as foreign policy experts, people who obviously focus on the world outside of America's shores, did it strike you as unusual or strike you in any way, the fact that Governor Romney sort of very early out the gate, within hours, was so forceful in attacking the Obama administration on a foreign policy issue like this, involving the death of American diplomats? Were you surprised at all, or --
GWERTZMAN: I think his first comment was really limited to the Egyptian embassy's comment, not to the Libyan attacks, unless I'm mistaken.
QUESTIONER: Well, he mentioned the Libyan attack in it.
GWERTZMAN: Did he?
QUESTIONER: Statement -- in the original statement.
GWERTZMAN: All right. Anyone want to take a crack at that?
COLEMAN: Well, I guess, you know, nothing surprises me in an election year, and foreign policy has been an area that I think Obama has been able to point to some, you know, significant successes, like the raid on Abbottabad, which got Osama bin Laden, and that -- it's been hard for the Romney campaign to kind of chip away at various things, and this provided an opportunity to remind people that it's a dangerous world out there. And you know, it's politics. They're going to go after any type of perceived advantage that they can at any point, particularly at this (point ?).
GWERTZMAN: I -- yeah, I thought it was interesting that Obama not only issued a written statement about 8:00 in the morning but then came out on the White House lawn to be on television at 10:35, but whatever.
All right, next question?
OPERATOR: Our next question will come from Camu Kush (ph), New African Magazine.
QUESTIONER: Yes, good afternoon. Given al-Qaeda being described not as an organization but as a -- as a brand name and a mindset and an ideology with grievances in America, the methodology, et cetera, isn't it possible that the persons who -- responsible for the attack of -- the killing of the U.S. ambassador, those persons came from -- were -- are elements from the Libyan government that's there and not necessarily some extraneous group of people with nothing to do with the current Libyan government?
And I'm asking that question because Ms. Coleman said that the attack of the ambassador portends a violent trend or may portend a violent trend in Libya. But it seems to me that in the period leading up to the overthrow of Colonel Gadhafi that people involved in that struggle were very, very violent and displayed a real barbaric approach to, you know, advancing their agenda. So isn't it possible and perhaps shouldn't you consider that maybe there are elements within the government itself that's responsible for this attack and perhaps you need to take a closer look at those people in the government instead of looking outside of the government to kind of sort this problem out?
COLEMAN: Well, what I specifically said was this could portend a violent trend within Libya and even, you know, potentially leading up to more even civil war in that country, because this is -- gets at the very nature of the government. You know, you have different groups within Libya that have not fully coalesced into a national government. Yes, they held a successful election with a relatively high voter turnout that elected a national government, but you do have some militia leaders who are quite powerful, who have not fully bought into that national unity and have not laid down their weapons, have not given up their armed militias. And they -- whether you want to say they're in the government or not in the government, they're not some, you know, small rogue group: They're some pretty serious elements in the country that need to be contended with. And whether any of them were involved in this attack, I have no idea. But you know, you've seen these tensions, and they have seemed to have dissipated in recent months, but they were very much there all of last fall and through the winter with different armed groups controlling different regions of the country with different -- with their own checkpoints and their own rules in place. You had vigilante forces who have been keeping prisoners and not being -- not turning them over. You've had all sorts of different groups maintaining their own centers of power. And you know, it's a little bit of a (tinder keg ?) in that -- in that respect.
QUESTIONER: Well, but that is -- that is a point. I mean, these are the people that the U.S. supported, and I think it ought not to be surprising if these people, who did exactly what you just described -- you know, holding prisoners, torturing prisoners, whatever, disappearing prisoners, et cetera -- if you supported these people, then, at the end of the process, they're now part of this new government. It's not -- it ought not to be surprising that this kind of an attack can -- could manifest, because some of these people are advocating sharia law, for instance, in Libya, and these are the people you supported.
So I guess as we -- as we examine this problem and cast an eye toward Syria, don't you think perhaps the U.S. should be much more careful in terms of the kinds of support it offers to these militia groups in these little fiefdoms, these little people with their arms running around? Should the United States government be more careful in terms of who they support? Because this is what happens, a question of sowing the wind and reaping the whirlwind.
COLEMAN: (Inaudible) -- I think you've seen that caution playing out in Syria for that very reason.
GWERTZMAN: OK. Next question?
OPERATOR: Our next question will come from Wihu Chen (ph) from China Daily.
QUESTIONER: Hi. I actually have a related question. I think you mentioned that this is not just an incident in response to the video, but it's more sort of people there, you know, believe America is at war with Islam. So I'm -- just want you to comment on, you know, what should be the reflection on the U.S. foreign policy in the region? You know, I think you already mentioned a little bit about, you know, there might be a new approach to Syria. So the outcome in Egypt and in Libya obviously is an undesirable for the American administration. So what it tells -- I mean, these attacks tell Americans' approach to Syria now?
HUSAIN: Yeah, the American approach to what's going on in Syria has thus far been very caveated, very cautious, and the intelligence agencies out on the ground are going out of the way to understand who the different denominations are in Syria. And as Isobel rightly points out, one of the reasons for American caution in Syria as opposed to Libya is to do with the fact that Syria or some parts of Syria have become a hub for jihadist fighters or al-Qaida operators. So, you know, in defense of the current administration, if I may, I think the policy thus far has been very wise and thoughtful and deliberate, you know.
And in the case of Libya, I mean, let's just step back for a moment to remember Gadhafi in power who was sending in his best arms cache to what he called -- kill rats -- in other words, his own population. However difficult it may be, I think it's worth remembering who, you know, the battle was against and what Gadhafi wanted to do to his people and why the intervention happened. And now in Syria, the situation is different.
And, you know, the U.S. policy has undergone a shift. Just look back, you know, six years when the then-U.S. government refused to recognize the election results in Gaza and the then-approach of the government in relation to Islamist movements, not engaging with them, not talking to them, not sitting in the same room as them, banning embassies from doing so, to look where we are now, you know, the U.S. embassy in Cairo and the presidential palace in close cooperation. So a shift has happened, and shifts continue to occur.
But I -- you know, I may sort of want to address the elephant in the room, and that is, you know, the questions around Israel. And I think it's worth putting this out there that, God forbid, if Israel were no longer to exist, you know, nothing changes for Arabs on the ground. Their educational challenges, high rates of unemployment, poor treatment in hospitals, the housing crisis, the economic difficulties, all of that, you know, continues to face them. So, you know, this tendency in some parts of the Middle East to continue to sort of fingerpoint towards the U.S. and blame the West for everything doesn't really reflect reality on the ground.
And my final point to all of this would be, suppose I'm trying to make this point in my answer that, you know, it's not U.S. policy per se that drives much of this extremism. Yes, you know, they sort of trigger some of these grievances. But let's not forget for a moment that al-Qaida's major grievance is not against the United States, but it's against fellow Muslims. It's against Arab and Muslim governments. And ultimately, al-Qaida and its affiliates want to overthrow those governments and get local Muslims in those countries to bow down to al-Qaida's version of Islam. And their major grievance and their major stumbling block are fellow Muslims. And unless al-Qaida's operatives realize their sort of high -- sort of hard-line form of Islam, that grievance will continue to fester.
So no matter what the United States does, it's worth remembering that, you know, this is a -- you know, this is not just a one-way street that whatever the U.S. does then triggers all of this, but there's a -- there's a civil war of ideas and a battle of -- battle for hearts and minds taking place inside the Middle East. And the U.S. happens to be, you know, one operator, but there are others. And I'd be cautious in sort of trying to reduce this entire debate and put, you know, unnecessary and extra burden on the U.S.
GWERTZMAN: OK. Isobel, do you want to add anything to that?
COLEMAN: No, I don't think so.
GWERTZMAN: OK. Next question.
OPERATOR: The next question will come Stephane Bussard, Le Temps newspaper.
QUESTIONER: Yes, thank you. Thank you for this briefing. There has been worldwide condemnations of the attacks on the U.S. embassy in Egypt and in Benghazi, but there are -- there have been few -- much fewer condemnations of the film, actually, that seems to have been at the origin of the violence. How do you look on this film in the light of the First Amendment and of the freedom of speech? Thank you.
COLEMAN: Well, I would just clarify, I really don't think the film was much related to what happened in Benghazi. This was a well-planned attack that was -- you know, marshaled a lot of firepower. It must have been weeks in the planning. You know, it -- I just -- I think it was timed to coincide with 9/11. The fact that there were some protests about the film going on provided some useful subterfuges as they were going in on their attack. But I really don't -- I'm just not linking the two.
And there have been some strong condemnations about the film around the world, in the United States. At the same time, you know, what some are asking, like President Morsi, to prosecute the makers of the film, I think reflects a misunderstanding about how our society functions.
GWERTZMAN: It is bizarre, that whole episode of the film, which no one in this country has ever heard of.
Let's see. Ed, do you have anything to add on that question?
HUSAIN: Only to say that, you know, yes, the film might have been irresponsible but, you know, should not be banned; the maker should not be prosecuted. This is how free societies operate. And, you know, the Arab uprisings were about getting to freedom, and it's time that, you know, these debates are ironed out.
And, you know, the right-wing extreme elements here, it's worth remembering, bounce off the right-wing extreme elements over there. So there's a symbiotic relationship, if you like. You know, these guys here on the far right, you know, put out these films and try to make a point about, you know, their understanding of Islam and Muslims, and then the extreme Salafi right wing over there in Muslim countries responds to that. And it just seems that the vast majority of us in both parts of the world are caught in this crossfire.
COLEMAN: I would just add one thing we haven't really touched upon, is the fact that this film also is complicated by the fact that there is a connection, I think, in terms of money, perhaps, and editorial direction from two Egyptian Coptic Christians. And if you've seen the film -- you now, I've watched parts of it at this point -- you know, it's staged -- it looks like a very low-budget film staged with, you know, actors with New York accents dubbed into Arabic. But it's really, you know, Egyptian Christians suffering at the hands of Muslims in very violent ways, and this is bound, of course, to stir already some pretty deep sectarian tensions in that country.
GWERTZMAN: Thank you.
We have about four minutes left, so let's keep questions short.
OPERATOR: Our next question will come from KT McFarland, Fox news.
QUESTIONER: Yeah. Could you address the notion -- are these on-off events or are we likely to see more violence against Americans, either American businessmen or diplomats, in that part of the world, not just in Egypt and in Libya but in other parts of the Middle East?
COLEMAN: I think there's always the potential for violence. You know, what we've seen going on in the last 20 months has not been specifically directed in any way towards the United States, anti-Americanism, but it's always there under the surface, and incidents like this bring it to the fore pretty quickly.
The situation in Libya, I think, again, is different. I emphasize that. I think the potential for some serious violence there is great.
In Egypt, you know, is there potential for follow-on demonstrations? You know, Ed has already said look at the Friday prayers. I can imagine that you're going to have some troublemakers calling for this or for that. It could spread to other countries. You know, we have seen this before, and I anticipate it will get worse before it gets better.
GWERTZMAN: All right, we have one more question left, I think.
OPERATOR: Thank you, Our next question will come from Azim Yann (ph), GL (ph) TV.
QUESTIONER: Yes. My question is, what possible reaction these incidents will have on moderate anti-al-Qaida elements in Pakistan and Afghanistan? How they are going to be unhelpful?
GWERTZMAN: Ed, could you make that out?
HUSAIN: Forgive me; the question is how -- you know, what's going to be unhelpful?
QUESTIONER: Yeah, what kind of impact these incidents will have on the moderate elements in Pakistan who are anti-al-Qaida, in Pakistan and in Afghanistan?
HUSAIN: I mean, I suppose that what you term as moderates or, you know, mainstream Muslims inside Pakistan will, you know, be able to identify with much of what's going on increasingly in parts of the Arab world, simply because that's been their experience for the, you know, last 10 years, at least, where there's a strong violent element on the fringes of extreme Islamism, Salafism; but also perhaps the moderate element will also identify with the Americans' drone program.
You know, the mention of surveillance drones going into Libya now, as Isobel correctly highlights, you know, sends shivers down the spines of most Pakistanis because what happened was their government and their army failed to act on U.S. intelligence that was provided to Pakistani army officials, and as a result what we saw was the U.S. then having to take action and violate Pakistani sovereignty. So perhaps there's a good lesson in this, that Pakistanis can perhaps look to what's going on in Libya and Egypt and see how things ought to be done differently.
But I would turn that question on its head and worry more about how Egypt and Egyptians will look to Pakistan and think that -- you know, to continue to maintain U.S. attention on the country, it's occasionally the strategy to tout extreme terrorists in a given territory, to then say to the U.S., unless you continue to provide us with financial support, these extreme violent elements become unruly. And my worry is that Morsi and others might look to the Pakistani example and say, well, you know, if the U.S. threatens aid, much along the lines Bernie alluded to earlier, you know, we'll unleash Sinai, we'll unleash the Mohamed al-Zawahiri elements inside Egypt to just illustrate to the U.S. and the West how indispensable Egypt is and continue to draw U.S. aid in that direction. So my concerns are actually more about how Egyptians learn from Pakistani experiences and hopefully not learn. I don't think I can sort of be more instructive in terms of how Pakistanis would respond to what's going on.
GWERTZMAN: Isobel, you want to make a final statement?
COLEMAN: Yeah, the only thing I would add is, you know, look, in Pakistan, the country has been gripped in recent weeks by yet another blasphemy case, you know, this case of Rimsha Masih, who's a young Christian girl, supposedly only about 14 years old and apparently developmentally disabled, who is accused of burning pages of the Quran and, you know, arrested, and people were calling for the death penalty for her. Now, you know, this is analogous to what we're talking about. This is an insult to Islam and people reacting to that in Pakistan. And it's led to a -- somewhat of a backlash in Pakistan, with people looking at this case and saying oh, my gosh, you know, it's ridiculous. The -- some of it was fabricated against this girl, apparently. Her accuser burned the pages himself and planted them on her, I mean, as a way of moving Christians out of the area.
There's a lot of analogy there to what you've seen with the Christian-Muslim tensions in Egypt, the affront to Islam, and how these countries react to it. How they deal with these issues is a really critical component of how they politically and economically develop in these countries, you know. This is one of the crux of the issues. Can you have democracy when you have these types of attitudes, you know? What does democracy mean? What does protection of minority rights? What does religious freedom? What does freedom of speech? All of these issues have to be much more openly debated in these countries.
GWERTZMAN: OK, well, look. Thank you very much, Isobel and Ed. I think we've been on for over an hour, and I hope we have given some more thoughts to the public out there. Thank you.
COLEMAN: Thank you. Thank you for -- (inaudible) -- in.
OPERATOR: Thank you very much, ladies and gentlemen. At this time, this conference is now concluded. (Gives queuing instructions.)