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Protesters clash with police in front of the U.S. embassy in Cairo early Thursday. (MOHAMMED ABU ZAID/ASSOCIATED PRESS)
Protesters clash with police in front of the U.S. embassy in Cairo early Thursday. (MOHAMMED ABU ZAID/ASSOCIATED PRESS)

Streets of rage: How the protests spread across the Arab world Add to ...

Why did the first protest break out in Egypt?

Extensive and influential coverage of the video in Egypt last week may have spurred protests, which began in earnest on Tuesday in Cairo. Protesters scaled the wall of the U.S. embassy and tore down the flag. Unrest spread in the following several hours to Tripoli and Benghazi, Libya.

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The U.S. administration was reportedly concerned about what it saw as an insufficiently vociferous condemnation of the violent protests stemming from the film. The White House said Thursday that President Barack Obama spoke on the phone with Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi; later that day, Mr. Morsi issued a statement from Brussels unequivocally condemning the attacks.

But messages have been somewhat mixed: The Muslim Brotherhood, the party that dominates Egypt’s parliament and to which Mr. Morsi belongs, has been calling for large-scale peaceful protests Friday.

Why haven't the protests spread to non-Arab capitals such as Kabul?

First of all, the short version of the film was dubbed only into Arabic and shown on cable television in Egypt and Libya for Arabic-speaking audiences. And, while the trailer and other short segments of the film are available on YouTube in their original English, a number of countries, including Afghanistan and Pakistan, have blocked the film from being accessed on YouTube to discourage violent protests.

Second, the demonstrations are spreading and are likely to reach other Muslim countries soon. Indeed, Afghan President Hamid Karzai cancelled his planned trip to Norway on Thursday for fear large-scale rioting could break out as early as Friday.

Afghanistan, after all, has experienced more than its fair share of protests against acts that insult Islam. In 2010, several United Nations personnel were killed in Mazar-e-Sharif when a protest against a U.S. pastor’s plan to burn the Koran on the anniversary of 9/11 provided cover for a storming of the UN compound.

Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?

What do the protest countries have in common?

Besides being mostly Arabic and predominantly Muslim, the countries experiencing the biggest protests are those in which an long-time autocratic ruler has been turfed and a new political order is still in flux.

In Libya, Yemen and Iraq, where chaos reigns and weapons are prevalent, various factions are vying for power in the new political order. Protests that would have been suppressed by previous regimes have become part of some factions’ modus operandi, covering for their more nefarious activities.

Of course, the major protest countries also share the distinction of having had U.S. assistance in taking down the old regimes. Those who are protesting hardest, mostly extremist Muslims, identify the United States as the patron of the current regime that they want to replace.

Who blocked the video and how?

YouTube blocked access to the video in Libya and Egypt. “We work hard to create a community everyone can enjoy and which also enables people to express different opinions,” the Google-owned company said in a statement. “This can be a challenge because what is okay in one country can be offensive elsewhere.

“This video – which is widely available on the Web – is clearly within our guidelines and so will stay on YouTube. However, given the very difficult situation in Libya and Egypt, we have temporarily restricted access in both countries.”

YouTube and Google have been trying to balance a reluctance to censor the Web with issues of copyright, local legislation and demands from governments – Canada among them – that content be blocked or removed.

The Afghan government ordered the YouTube clip blocked on Wednesday. “It badly affects the minds of young Afghans,” an anonymous government official told Reuters. The president of AFSAT, Afghanistan’s primary Internet provider, told Reuters the company blocked access to YouTube before the government order came, as a precautionary measure. Access was restored after several hours, however, and Afghan Internet users could gain access to YouTube freely on Thursday.

On Thursday, Pakistan and India joined in. Pakistan’s telecommunication authority said in a statement it has “pro-actively blocked and is vigorously preventing all access to the anti-Islamic video placed on the Worldwide Web via YouTube with the name of Innocence of Muslims.”

Why did this video incite such anger when there are many like them on the Internet?

This film depicts the Prophet Mohammed as a womanizer and a fraud. That in itself is a breathtaking affront for a religion where any depiction of the Prophet is forbidden. But this isn’t the first virulently anti-Islam video posted online, by a long shot.

The widespread violent reactions could have been sparked, in part, when it was translated into Arabic and distributed. The Sept. 11 timing arguably helped as well, as the issue of Arab-U.S. relations was prominent in the news. But the level of co-ordination in Tuesday’s attack on the U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi suggests that this particular incident was anything but a spontaneous protest. One of the suspected groups behind the Benghazi assault is locally based. But several observers have noted that extremist groups have fanned protests in other countries or used the anger to their own ends.

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