Outrage, ire, wrath … all this words have been used to describe l’etat d’esprit of an Arab World allegedly in flames after the last controversy related to an insulting depiction of the Prophet Mohamed. By reading the international press, it seems that the Arab masses are consumed in their desire of revenge against the US.
However, from Cairo, this all this seems a tale from another world. In the last two days, life flew here with its normal rhythm. Cairenes were angry, yes, because the are stuck in traffic jams that grow worse every day. They were outraged, yes, because they had to queue a long time to get their subsidized bread. People here were incensed, oh yes, because prices soar while salaries keep stagnant. But regarding that infamous video done by Sam Bacile, a shady character that may not exist, most people I met did not care much.
There was an exception, of course, the “masses” that “besieged” the American embassy in Cairo. Today I was there, in Tahrir. I saw them. And to tell you the truth, the crowd looked pretty thin to me. At most, they were 3.000 people … in a megalopolis with more than 20 million souls.
I expected to see bearded men with their headgears and their traditional dresses shouting slogans against the US and burning American flags. You know, hard-core Islamists. Nonetheless, most people I saw battling against the anti-riot police were young kids, some of them teenagers, who had not even seen the video. Only a minority were Islamists.
Rather than outrage provoked by the film, their main driver seemed to be settling the scores with the police for previous battlers. Or maybe just to get a shot of adrenaline by throwing stones against the police and running back and forth when they charge. Some of them told me that they were also there in the battles against the SCAF. The enemy may have change in the last two months, but the fun was the same.
Certainly, the crowd was a little different on Tuesday evening, the first day of demonstrations against the video. That day the demonstrators were Islamists. Salafists, to be precise. And yes, they were angry. But not to the point of shouting “Death to America!”, or trying to storm the embassy. The concentration was pretty peaceful, and probably it only made it to the news because some kids, probably “ultras” (football fans), climbed the wall of the embassy to take an American flag. Of course, later on, the horrible killing of the US embassador in Libia took the whole issue into a new dimension.
In short, my point is that the alleged wrath of the Arab World against the US because of the nefarious film is overblown. Sure, the image of the US is very bad among Arabs, but the reason is not a dark movie, but its unconditional support to Israel. And I don’t think it got worse in the last two days.
A noisy minority, duly manipulated by some sheiks, may be really incensed, but it does not represent the real feelings of the majority of the population. Unfortunately, violence gets always the attention of the cameras, enhancing the creation of a narrative that reinforces the worse stereotypes about the “fanatic” Arabs. And the layers of misunderstanding between East and West keep piling up …
Update: Just came back from Tahrir. About 5.000 people demonstrated in the center of the square. Most of them were Islamists. People were angry, and some of them were suspicious of foreign journalists. A few hundred meters away, a group of hundreds of kids kept fighting with the police. One of them, Omar Tariq, told me that he was one of those who on Tuesday took the flag from the American embassy. Curiously, he is a student of the American University of Cairo. What a better metaphor of the contradictions of the current crisis?