Angry crowds attacked U.S. diplomatic posts in Egypt and Libya on Tuesday, killing an American diplomat, after a video appeared on the Internet that protesters said insulted Islam, providing a graphic illustration of the volatile mood remaining in countries that threw off authoritarian rule in the “Arab Spring” uprisings.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said in a statement that one State Department official had been killed at the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, and that officials were working to secure the property and personnel.
Clinton said she had called Libyan President Mohamed Magariaf to help arrange better protection for Americans in Libya. She said in light of the attacks, U.S. officials and allies around the world are taking extra precautions against similar assaults.
“We are heartbroken by this terrible loss,” she said.
Egyptian protesters earlier scaled the walls of the U.S. Embassy in Cairo in protest over a video that they said mocked the prophet Muhammad, claiming it had been made by Egyptian Coptic immigrants in the U.S.
In Benghazi, protesters set fire to the consulate and fired into the air in protest over the film, the Associated Press reported. Looters grabbed desks, chairs and even washing machines from the empty compound, according to Reuters reporters on the scene.
The Cairo protesters pulled down the U.S. flag, and in its place, they raised a black flag that read: “There is no God but Allah and Muhammad is his prophet” before Egyptian security forces sought to tame the crowd.
As night fell, protesters continued to gather outside the embassy in one of the biggest demonstrations there since the fall of Hosni Mubarak’s government early last year. Security forces surrounded the compound to prevent protesters from again storming it, though some demonstrators remained on the wall, waving black flags.
As many as 2,000 demonstrators had rallied outside the Embassy in a gathering called for by the Islamic conservative Salafist movement to protest a video posted on YouTube that they said insulted Islam.
The private Al Nas television channel run by Salafists played some of the video before to the rally.
The video shown on the channel refers to Muhammad and his followers as “child lovers.” It also shows the prophet speaking to a supposed Muslim donkey, asking him whether he loves women. The channel’s enraged host and a commentator then demanded to know how Islam could be treated in such a debasing way.
The video has been promoted online by Florida preacher Terry Jones, whose 2011 burning of a Koran triggered riots in Afghanistan. Jones was commemorating the 11th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks on Tuesday.
In a statement, he called the assault on the embassy in Egypt proof that Muslims “have no tolerance for anything outside of Muhammad.”
Nader Bakar, spokesman of Al Nour party, the political arm of the Salafist movement, denied any involvement in the uproar.
“We were there for a couple of hours in a peaceful protest,” said Bakar, who had called for the demonstration the day before. “We are against this movie being made to defame the prophet. The U.S. Embassy understood this and they issued a statement condemning hateful rhetoric.”
The mood was a reminder of the volatility of politics in post-Mubarak Egypt, where, more than ever, rumor can stir people into a frenzy. Suspicion of involvement by Coptic Christians shows how tension between Muslims and Christians, who make up about 10% of Egypt’s population, still burns.
“Many of the people here haven’t even seen the movie,” said Mostafa Nageh, a youth who attended the protest. “Most people came out to protest just because they heard that a video insulting the prophet was made in the U.S.”
In Washington, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said Tuesday that the breach of the embassy wall “came up pretty quickly” and involved a “relatively modest group of people, but caught probably us and the Egyptian security outside by some surprise.” She said she was not aware of any injuries.
Meanwhile, Egyptian authorities ordered the arrest of former presidential candidate Ahmed Shafik in a corruption case that involves Mubarak’s two sons and four retired military generals.
A judge referred Shafik, along with Gamal and Alaa Mubarak, to criminal court on charges of purposefully squandering public funds and selling land for less than market value in the Ismailia governorate, Egypt’s state news agency reported.
The allegations bring up Shafik’s role as a chairman of a housing association in the 1990s when he reportedly sold land to the Mubarak brothers at unreasonably low prices. The judge called for Shafik, who was Hosni Mubarak’s close friend and last prime minister, to be jailed and remain in custody until trial.
Shafik, who has lived in the United Arab Emirates since losing June’s presidential election to Muslim Brotherhood member Mohamed Morsi, recently slammed the Egyptian authorities’ decision to investigate him.
In June, the elder Mubarak became the first ousted Arab leader to be sentenced to life in prison for failing to stop the killing of protesters during last year’s 18-day uprising against him. He is serving his sentence in a high-security state prison.
His sons are in custody and on trial in a case that involves insider trading on the stock market.
Abdellatif is a special correspondent. Times staff writers Emily Alpert in Los Angeles and Paul Richter in Washington contributed to this report.