As protests and demonstrations continue throughout the Arab world in reaction to the Muhammad video (I still will not dignify it with the term “film” or “movie” as some do), a number of developments and articles are worth noting. But most striking – outside of the scenes of the violence in the streets – are two unfolding dramas: the questioning of Nakoula Basseley Nakoula who may be the individual behind the video and the hidden drama of the Egyptian government as it negiotiates the complexities of creating a democracy.
The Mystery Man – Nakoula Basseley Nakoula
From Reuters: Nakoula Basseley Nakoula voluntarily went with officers to a meeting in a sheriff’s station in Cerritos, Los Angeles County. This was not an arrest but an “interview” – and he continues to deny involvement in the video. Officials are looking into possible parole violations – Nakoula was sentenced to 21 months in prison (with five years of probation) for bank fraud. His release was contingent on not using aliases or accessing the Internet, both of which appear to have been done if he is the producer of the Muhammad video.
Nakoula will never end up back in jail for the video with the free speech rights in the United States, but he could for parole violations. Regardless, his name will go down as a waypoint in the history of the Internet for the havoc, destruction and death that could be brought about by a single video clip.
The Egyptian Government’s Drama Behind the Scenes
Everyone is understandably focusing on the street protests in Egypt and rest of the Arab world, but there is another drama – a fundamental struggle going on behind the scenes as the Egyptian government comes to terms with a functioning democracy.
For decades, the country lived under the iron fist of a dictatorship with protests and arrests at periodic intervals. But Mubarak could pretty much do what he wanted, with the ongoing calculation that he could only push his people to a certain point. He was a master of knowing where that (somewhat fluid boundary was).
Now that Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi leads the country, it’s not so simple. For days, he has scored points with supporters and opposition parties (particularly with the radical Islamist party Salafi Al-Nour) by keeping security low and letting the protesters have the upper hand. But the very technology that keeps the video in front of peoples eyes – and helped support the overthrow of Mubarak – backfired on the Muslim Brotherhood and Morsi who were saying one thing to the West and issuing statements with a radically different tone for domestic consumption.
Sometimes it seems like everything in the digital revolution is a boomerang - no matter how far it gets thrown, you’ll soon be ducking as it comes back at you. From the Wall Street Journal:
Until today, Mr. Morsi’s presidency had appeared less than contrite about the security lapse that allowed protesters to invade the fortress-like U.S. mission. On Thursday, the Brotherhood went so far as to call for nationwide “vigils” in front of “major mosques” throughout the country on Friday—a day in which protests in Egypt have become a ritual.
Though the call for demonstrations smacked of intentional escalation, Brotherhood leaders portrayed the call as a kind of contained catharsis that would move the focus of popular rage away from the volatile flashpoint that is the U.S. embassy.
Essam El Erian, the head of the FJP, said the Brotherhood firmly rejected any attacks on foreign missions and insisted that the continuing violence in downtown Cairo includes “mainly young men” and no politicians.
The Brotherhood’s mixed message was encapsulated by a Twitter exchange between the group and the U.S. Embassy. Just as the Brotherhood’s English-language Twitter account made earnest inquiries about the safety of U.S. diplomats in Cairo, its Arabic-language Twitter account praised Egyptian protesters for “rising to the defense of the Prophet.”
The @USEmbassyCairo Twitter handle replied: “By the way, have you checked out your own Arabic feeds? I hope you know we read those too.”
“I hope you know we read those too” – diplomacy these days gets carried out on Twitter.
Leading a democratically elected government is no simple task in a deeply interconnected world. Especially when what you say domestically (to an electorate with a widespread anti-American bias) is the opposite of what you say to people abroad. We can trip up on this ourselves – just witness how some campaign statements play differently here and overseas – but it’s even more difficult when a democracy is just getting underway. Just as the video has a viral quality about it in the Arab world, so do domestic statements for support of the protesters in the rest of the world. It’s a classic lose-lose situation, and yet, for Morsi to be a legitimate leader in the global community and the government an effective democracy at home, he will have to turn it into a win-win.
I don’t envy the challenge.