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U.S. Ambassador to Libya Killed as Anti-Islam Film Inflames “Repressed Social Forces” Post-Gaddafi

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The U.S. ambassador to Libya has been killed along with three other embassy staff after protesters stormed a consular building denouncing an American-made film insulting the Prophet Muhammad. Ambassador Christopher Stevens is reportedly the first U.S. envoy to be killed abroad in more than two decades. We’re joined from Benghazi by Libyan activist and journalist Nizar Sarieldin, and also speak to Vijay Prashad, professor at Trinity College and author of “Arab Spring, Libyan Winter.” [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: We begin today’s show in Libya, where the U.S. ambassador to Libya and three other embassy staff have been killed after protesters attacked the U.S. consulate in the eastern city of Benghazi. Ambassador Christopher Stevens is reportedly the first American envoy to be killed abroad in more than two decades. The consulate was attacked by protesters denouncing a short American film insulting the Prophet Muhammad. There are conflicting accounts of how Stevens died. Some reports say he died inside the consulate from smoke inhalation. Others say he was killed in a car being driven from the consulate building. There was no immediate comment from the State Department in Washington.

AMY GOODMAN: The protests against the film began Tuesday in both Libya and Egypt. In Cairo, demonstrators stormed over the fortified walls of the U.S. embassy.

Joining us now on the phone from Benghazi is the Libyan activist and journalist Nizar Sarieldin. We’re also joined by Vijay Prashad, a professor at Trinity College. His latest book is called Arab Spring, Libyan Winter.

Nizar, let’s turn to you first. Tell us what’s happening in Benghazi and what you understood happened yesterday.

NIZAR SARIELDIN: Well, the security void is unclear, and no one can really accuse who did this or moved these groups to make this protest. Yesterday, we heard about this attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi. We went over there and found this building burned. And like, beard people were outside, looks like radical groups with weapons, and they were like planning to attack the consulate. We didn’t know for what reason, until we found out that a channel, an Egyptian channel, religious Egyptian channel, were accusing Americans that we need to move to protect our Prophet Muhammad and stop this video that had been posted two months ago. And you just—we don’t know why this thing’s been provoked right now. And nobody knows about this movie. I don’t know why and who and for whose interest is to attack the embassy in Benghazi.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Nizar Sarieldin, do you know if there were any links between the attacks on the embassy in Cairo, whether it was a coordinated attack, the attack in Cairo and then the one in Benghazi on the U.S. consulate?

NIZAR SARIELDIN: Well, these groups are moved by clerics outside the country. They have no control of them. They take their orders from outside the country, so they are Salafis with the radical Salafist group, and they are moved by certain clerics. And they are on channels, on satellite, so everybody watched them. When they got this—get this order, they go out and do what they asked for. So, what they moved them, actually, a channel, a program and a channel called Al Nas, People, and it’s a religious Sunni TV.

AMY GOODMAN: And Nizar, did you know U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens? He had been there for years. In fact, he had been there when the U.S. was having a rapprochement with Muammar Gaddafi, and then he was named the ambassador.

NIZAR SARIELDIN: Well, yes, I did meet him once in a demonstration in Tahrir Square, and he was alone talking to the people without guards. He trusted the people. He loved the people, and the people loved him so much. And I think that he respected. And he was going around with no high security in the beginning. And then he disappeared, of course, after the frequent incident happened in Benghazi. They start to have higher security. And after the attack on the embassy by the RPG like months ago, he disappeared. We didn’t know if he’s in Benghazi or in Tripoli.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Were people aware, Nizar, that he was in Benghazi at the time of the attack, though? Was his visit announced?

NIZAR SARIELDIN: No, I found—well, I was there after the attack, and I was there, and I found—like, when I saw the people’s faces in the group, they were even themselves confused and shocked that the ambassador was inside. So there was like a big confusion. And they tried to hide the story. Yeah, and they couldn’t talk about it to the public. So, they were—I definitely know that they didn’t know, because they were outside the embassy by that time.


NIZAR SARIELDIN: And they discovered that someone is inside—

AMY GOODMAN: You were there in Benghazi. What has been the reaction since the killing of the U.S. ambassador and his aides?

NIZAR SARIELDIN: Confusion is looming, and everybody is actually worried, especially from these groups, because they are starting took to a little bit control and take actions, especially with this security void and political void. There has been call and demos and—against these groups, but 'til now the state is doing nothing to control them or to arrest them. And this is what worries everybody here in Benghazi. They're not comfortable with them. And today there is a demonstration for Chris, and not only for Chris, and for the security here and against those groups, so we are hoping that it will be big. Everyone is depressed about this news. I talked to a lot of people. There were not really comfortable. They couldn’t sleep all night, because they’re really worried about their families, their security and everything.

AMY GOODMAN: And when you say “Chris,” you’re referring to the U.S. ambassador, Christopher Stevens, who was killed last night. We’re talking to Nizar Sarieldin. He is in Benghazi right now. We are also joined by Vijay Prashad, professor at Trinity College. His latest book, Arab Spring, Libyan Winter. As you learn this news, your reaction to what’s taken place in Libya, Professor Prashad?

VIJAY PRASHAD: Well, obviously, the first thing is, this is not a very, you know, surprising event to me. It’s a very sad event. It’s very sad when there’s violence of this kind. Chris Stevens was a career Foreign Service officer. He had been in the Peace Corps. He also was in Benghazi in 2011 at the start of the February revolution. He had been deputed there by the U.S. State Department. So he has had a long relationship with Libya. But it’s not surprising, Amy, because there are social forces inside Libya that have been suppressed and are seeking to have some kind of outlet.

You know, in Benghazi itself, this is not the first incident of this kind. In 2006, during the high point of the Danish cartoon controversy, there was a demonstration of more than a thousand people in front of the Italian consulate, because an Italian minister, Roberto Calderoli, had worn a T-shirt, very insulting, which had that Danish cartoon on it. At that demonstration, the Gaddafi regime opened fire on the crowd, killed 11 people. And that was on February 17th, 2006. Because of that firing on the crowd, several human rights activists—Fathi Terbil, Idris al-Mesmari, people like that—had become politicized. And it was for the fifth anniversary of that police firing by the Gaddafi regime, on February 17, 2011, that people like Terbil had planned demonstrations in Benghazi, the fifth anniversary, to commemorate the Gaddafi shooting against this crowd. And the spur, as it were, of the anti-Gaddafi rebellion last year was essentially around the commemoration of the shooting in Benghazi in 2006.

So, there are social forces in Libya that have had a sense of being humiliated and suppressed. Many of them, you know, have, in a sense, the framework of Islamism. But I don’t think we should fully, you know, make this a situation where we say, “Well, these are, you know, far-right, radical, dangerous, al-Qaeda,” things like that. You know, sure, there were black flags, but I think there’s an exaggeration of the black flag used in these demonstrations both in Cairo and in Benghazi. You know, the black flag, for instance, is not only a symbol of al-Qaeda, as people have been saying in the American media, but it has become a routine flag of Islamists. You know, at the storming of the Cairo embassy, it was not just Islamists, it was also the Ultras, the football group that had played a significant role in the Tahrir Square rebellion in Egypt. But there is a section of the population that is feeling, in a sense, you know, marginalized. They have no political voice. There’s a section that feels that the election, where, you know, the rules of the election may not have fully allowed them to put forward their own position. So, there is a complicated social section that I think we need to consider its history, its role, and I think it’s continuing an enduring sense that it has no voice. I don’t think arresting a lot of people or shooting people in these demonstrations is going to quell that social section. It needs to have a political voice.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Vijay Prashad, you mentioned the Danish cartoon controversy in 2005. Can you elaborate a little on what the response in Benghazi was at the time to those cartoons?

VIJAY PRASHAD: Yes, certainly. You know, when the cartoon controversy begins in November, December 2005, it spreads rapidly around the world. You know, just as Nizar is saying now, the satellite television channels played a major role there. Clerics played a major role. And there were demonstrations in—across the world, really, against the cartoon controversy. In February, there was a major demonstration in Benghazi. And again this—we should keep putting this in context. The 20061 demonstration in February wasn’t the first major demonstration in Benghazi on this idea of being a people humiliated. You know, why is it that the West wants to humiliate us with things like these cartoons or this ridiculous film made by Sam Bacile and promoted by Terry Jones, the pastor in Florida? So, in Benghazi in 2006, there was a major demonstration—I mean, in 2006, there was a major demonstration, and the police fired at it. But again, you know, when I say let’s put this in con—in 1996, the Libyan Islamic fighting group had started its rebellion. And at that point, it was, you know, virulently put down by the Gaddafi regime. So, whether it’s 1996, 2006, 2011, 2012, you cannot suppress the social section simply by force of arms.

AMY GOODMAN: I just wanted to read a bit from the AP piece on what the film that people were protesting is, who it was made by. AP says, “An Israeli filmmaker based in California went into hiding [Tuesday] after his movie attacking Islam’s prophet Muhammad sparked angry assaults by ultra-conservative Muslims on U.S. missions in Egypt and Libya… Speaking by phone … from an undisclosed location, writer and director Sam Bacile” — if that’s how it’s pronounced, B-A-C-I-L-E — “remained defiant, saying Islam is a cancer and that the 56-year-old intended his film to be a provocative political statement condemning the religion.”

It goes on to say, “The two-hour movie, 'Innocence of Muslims,' cost $5 million to make… The film claims Muhammad was a fraud. An English-language 13-minute trailer on YouTube shows an amateur cast performing a wooden dialogue of insults disguised as revelations about Muhammad, whose obedient followers are presented as a cadre of goons.

“It depicts Muhammad as a feckless philanderer who approved of child sexual abuse, among other overtly insulting claims that have caused outrage.”

Now, this was made in 2011. It is unclear why this is gaining attention right now. “It was made in three months in the summer of 2011, with 59 actors and about 45 people behind cameras.” “Bacile’s film was dubbed into Egyptian Arabic by someone he doesn’t know, but he speaks enough Arabic to confirm that the translation is accurate.”

I’d like to get response from Vijay Prashad, and then, Nizar, I’d like you also to respond, if people are watching this film. Nizar Sarieldin is still with us in Benghazi.

VIJAY PRASHAD: Well, Amy, as far—


VIJAY PRASHAD: I watched the 13-minute trailer. It is a very, very disturbing film. It’s not the presence of the film or the making of the film itself that’s the problem. It’s that it’s been heavily promoted. You know, as I mentioned, Terry Jones, the pastor in Florida who threatened to burn the Koran in public, you know, to commemorate 9/11 a few years ago, has been promoting films like this. He has become a touchstone. And at the other end of the spectrum, there are radical clerics, just like this radical preacher, who are mirroring him. And, you know, they are creating a very tense kind of so-called clash of civilizations atmosphere, in which there is a combustion going to happen. So I think that’s the context in the larger sense.

In the more specific sense, there is certainly political jockeying going on in Egypt, where this really began, you know, with an Egyptian social section, with an Egyptian political section that is jockeying for authority in contemporary Egypt. It just happened to be a coincidence that in Libya, the prime minister was going to be announced yesterday. So it was just coincidental in Libya, as well, that there is a kind of political jockeying. But in Egypt, there is a very real political battle between a section of the Islamists and those who want to have a different kind of constitution, when that is indeed written. So, this is a kind of context that is there, and this combustive battle between two kinds of radicalism came in the middle of it.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Nizar Sarieldin, could you comment, as well, on this film and whether the trailer has been circulating in Libya?

NIZAR SARIELDIN: Well, if you—if you check the rate of number of viewers, two months ago you would find just only 5,000 people have been watching this video. And since the channel talked about it, it gave it like a boost, and they started like 25,000 in one day, and it’s only in Libya. So, I guess who did the publicity for this movie is actually clerics, and like this channel made the publicity and made everybody watched it and moved the street for that. So, I think the only—there is a reason. I think there is—they want to score something. They want to hide us on certain facts, because we are going towards democracy. And democracy—of course, those radicals are against democracy, and they are not really happy with this elections and everything. They want it to be like in old-time Islamic ruling, which is that everybody disagreed with. So—

AMY GOODMAN: Nizar Sarieldin, I want to thank you very much for being with us. He’s speaking to us from Benghazi, Libyan activist and journalist, Benghazi, where the U.S. ambassador, Christopher Stevens, was killed last night with three embassy aides. Vijay Prashad, joining us from Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut. Professor Prashad’s latest book is called Arab Spring, Libyan Winter.

This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. When we come back, Kurt Eichenwald will join us to talk about Secrets and Lies in the Terror War, is his new book, 500 Days. Stay with us.

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