The anti-Islam film and violence in Egypt - reaction from Cairo

"It’s anger at the police. The film is a spark that caused the flame."

Protests in Cairo spread to Tahrir Square today as Salafi protestors were joined by violent football fans, Ultras Ahlawy. But can these two days of violence really all be because of a film?

Anger at Security Forces

“It’s not just because of the movie,” says Cairene NGO worker Nihal Saad Zaghloul, “but it is also something between the Ultras and the security forces.”

Resentment has built in the past week between police and protesters with the acquittal of four security officers accused of murder during the 25 January revolution. Recent protests against the “Port Said massacre”, in which 79 rioting football fans were killed while police apparently looked on, have also stirred up anger. Tellingly, protests in solidarity with the victims were held in Mohamed Mahmoud Street, the scene of 41 deaths and thousands of injuries during five day violent street battles with security forces in 2011.

“It’s anger at the police, the film is a spark that caused the flame,” says Zaghloul.

Muslim Brotherhood

Morsi has issued a statement this afternoon asking the US to apologise for the film and condemning violence in the protests. People complain however that this move has taken him two days and question why four Copts have even been placed on the no fly list. With Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafi Al-Nour party being the ones who called for protests against the film on Friday, Morsi would be going up against his allies to condemn them.

“The whole thing is stupid, people think they must defend Islam and that it is about Copts seeking protection from the US, and Morsi is letting this happen.” says Cairo resident Ahmed El-Ghamrawi. “We having been trying to get the Syrian flag down on the embassy [in weekly protests against Assad’s regime] and its pretty brutal. But at these protests police are not trying to stop or contain it.  It shows Morsi is not going to crack down on Islamist as much as other groups. He is trying to get back the jihadi, Salafi vote.”

Sectarian Tensions

Morsi has come under increasing criticism for his appointment of Muslim Brotherhood members to posts in the army and press councils. With Copts being blamed for the film, at this time of Coptic New Year Morsi’s actions will only serve to heighten suspicion that he is not, as he claimed, “a President for all Egyptians.”

Although many Copts and Muslims live in harmony in Egypt, Jehan Zacharia, a Coptic resident of Minia says: “It really worries Copts in Egypt as Muslims can't reach US Copts or hurt them but they can hurt Copts in Egypt.”

As protests continue in a country which still has no constitution or parliament, the actions around this film will be interpreted by many as an indicator of the future. “I don’t like it.” says Saad Zaghloul. “It makes me worry what we have become.”

A protestor runs with a canister of tear gas near the US embassy in Cairo. Photograph: Getty Images
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Why the Liberal Democrats by-election surge is not all it seems

The Lib Dems chalked up impressive results in Stoke and Copeland. But just how much of a fight back is it?

By the now conventional post-Brexit logic, Stoke and Copeland ought to have been uniquely inhospitable for the Lib Dems. 

The party lost its deposit in both seats in 2015, and has no representation on either council. So too were the referendum odds stacked against it: in Stoke, the so-called Brexit capital of Britain, 70 per cent of voters backed Leave last June, as did 62 per cent in Copeland. And, as Stephen has written before, the Lib Dems’ mini-revival has so far been most pronounced in affluent, Conservative-leaning areas which swung for remain. 

So what explains the modest – but impressive – surges in their vote share in yesterday’s contests? In Stoke, where they finished fifth in 2015, the party won 9.8 per cent of the vote, up 5.7 percentage points. They also more than doubled their vote share in Copeland, where they beat Ukip for third with 7.3 per cent share of the vote.

The Brexit explanation is a tempting and not entirely invalid one. Each seat’s not insignificant pro-EU minority was more or less ignored by most of the national media, for whom the existence of remainers in what we’re now obliged to call “left-behind Britain” is often a nuance too far. With the Prime Minister Theresa May pushing for a hard Brexit and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn waving it through, Lib Dem leader Tim Farron has made the pro-EU narrative his own. As was the case for Charles Kennedy in the Iraq War years, this confers upon the Lib Dems a status and platform they were denied as the junior partners in coalition. 

While their stance on Europe is slowly but surely helping the Lib Dems rebuild their pre-2015 demographic core - students, graduates and middle-class professionals employed in the public sector – last night’s results, particularly in Stoke, also give them reason for mild disappointment. 

In Stoke, campaign staffers privately predicted they might manage to beat Ukip for second or third place. The party ran a full campaign for the first time in several years, and canvassing returns suggested significant numbers of Labour voters, mainly public sector workers disenchanted with Corbyn’s stance on Europe, were set to vote Lib Dem. Nor were they intimidated by the Brexit factor: recent council by-elections in Sunderland and Rotheram, which both voted decisively to leave, saw the Lib Dems win seats for the first time on massive swings. 

So it could well be argued that their candidate, local cardiologist Zulfiqar Ali, ought to have done better. Staffordshire University’s campus, which Tim Farron visited as part of a voter registration drive, falls within the seat’s boundaries. Ali, unlike his Labour competitor Gareth Snell and Ukip leader Paul Nuttall, didn’t have his campaign derailed or disrupted by negative media attention. Unlike the Tory candidate Jack Brereton, he had the benefit of being older than 25. And, like 15 per cent of the electorate, he is of Kashmiri origin.  

In public and in private, Lib Dems say the fact that Stoke was a two-horse race between Labour and Ukip ultimately worked to their disadvantage. The prospect of Nuttall as their MP may well have been enough to convince a good number of the Labour waverers mentioned earlier to back Snell. 

With his party hovering at around 10 per cent in national polls, last night’s results give Farron cause for optimism – especially after their near-wipeout in 2015. But it’s easy to forget the bigger picture in all of this. The party have chalked up a string of impressive parliamentary by-election results – second in Witney, a spectacular win in Richmond Park, third in Sleaford and Copeland, and a strong fourth in Stoke. 

However, most of these results represent a reversion to, or indeed an underperformance compared to, the party’s pre-2015 norm. With the notable exception of Richmond’s Sarah Olney, who only joined the Lib Dems after the last general election, these candidates haven’t - or the Lib Dem vote - come from nowhere. Zulfiqar Ali previously sat on the council in Stoke and had fought the seat before, and Witney’s Liz Leffman and Sleaford’s Ross Pepper are both popular local councillors. And for all the excited commentary about Richmond, it was, of course, held by the Lib Dems for 13 years before Zac Goldsmith won it for the Tories in 2010. 

The EU referendum may have given the Lib Dems a new lease of life, but, as their #LibDemFightback trope suggests, they’re best understood as a revanchist, and not insurgent, force. Much has been said about Brexit realigning our politics, but, for now at least, the party’s new normal is looking quite a lot like the old one.