US embassy staff evacuated as Muhammad film protests spread

Workers in Khartoum and Tunis advised to leave.

The US has withdrawn non-essential staff from its embassies in Sudan and Tunisia, the Associated Press has reported. The move follows protests in Muslim-majority countries this weekend, galvanised by an anti-Islamic film made in the US. While some of the demonstrations have been peaceful, protestors have reportedly been killed and wounded in clashes with police in Sudan. Earlier this week, the US ambassador to Libya was killed, along with three others, in the eastern city of Benghazi.

Many demonstrators have referenced the film "Innocence of Muslims", made by a Christian group in America, but there are suggestions that some unrest had planned before the release of the film.

The Guardian's Julian Borger reports:

US officials have said they believe outrage over the film may have been used by an extremist Libyan group, Ansar al-Sharia, as cover and a diversion for an assault on the Benghazi consulate that had been long planned for the 11th anniversary of the 11 September attacks. The president of the Libyan assembly, Yousef al-Megariaf, agreed. During a visit to Benghazi, he described the storming of the consulate as "pre-planned to hit at the core of the relationship between Libya and the United States". Small anti-American demonstrations in Damascus and Tehran appeared to have been facilitated by the authorities there.

So far, protests have been reported in Tunisia, Iraq, Pakistan, Bahrain, Iran, Syria, Egypt, Turkey, Yemen, Jordan, Sudan, Palestine and India, with smaller demonstrations in Western countries such as Australia and Britain. 

In Tunisia, cars outside the US embassy in Tunis were set on fire and protesters scaled its walls.

In Khartoum, Sudan, the German embassy was torched, and its diplomats took refuge in the British embassy next door. The foreign secretary, William Hague, said: "Sudanese police attended the scene, but demonstrators were able to break down a perimeter wall and cause minor damage to the compound. They did not attempt to gain access to the British embassy building."

Protesters also attempted to smash the windows of the US embassy:

In Iran, Israeli flags were burned alongside US ones, and women held up anti-Jewish placards:

There were similar scenes in Kut, Iraq:

In Cairo, Egypt, stones were thrown at riot police during clashes near the US embassy. The Muslim Brotherhood withdrew calls for nationwide protests, saying they would instead participate in a "symbolic demonstration".

In Srinagar, in the Kashmir Valley, demonstrations entered their second day today. The video sharing website YouTube has blocked access to the film in India in the hope of restraining the violence.

In Sanaa, Yemen, the US embassy was targeted and security forces fired warning shots and tear gas to disperse the crowds:

In Turkey, prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan told protesters that the film should not be used as a pretext for violence, as anti-US slogans were chanted in Beyazit Square in Istanbul:

In Sydney, Australia, there was a small demonstration outside the US Consulate General:

In Palestine, protesters shouted slogans after Friday prayers at Al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem:

In Britain, an American flag was burned in front of the US embassy in London:

(All photos: Getty Images)

In Khartoum, protesters targeted the German and US embassies. Photo: Getty
Photo: Getty
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Something is missing from the Brexit debate

Inside Westminster, few seem to have noticed or care about the biggest question mark in the Brexit talks. 

What do we know about the government’s Brexit strategy that we didn’t before? Not much, to be honest.

Theresa May has now said explicitly what her red lines on European law and free movement of labour said implicitly: that Britain is leaving the single market. She hasn’t ruled out continuing payments from Britain to Brussels, but she has said that they won’t be “vast”. (Much of the detail of Britain’s final arrangement is going to depend on what exactly “vast” means.)  We know that security co-operation will, as expected, continue after Brexit.

What is new? It’s Theresa May’s threat to the EU27 that Britain will walk away from a bad deal and exit without one that dominates the British newspapers.

“It's May Way or the Highway” quips City AM“No deal is better than a bad deal” is the Telegraph’s splash, “Give us a deal… or we walk” is the Mirror’s. The Guardian opts for “May’s Brexit threat to Europe”,  and “May to EU: give us fair deal or you’ll be crushed” is the Times’ splash.

The Mail decides to turn the jingoism up to 11 with “Steel of the new Iron Lady” and a cartoon of Theresa May on the white cliffs of Dover stamping on an EU flag. No, really.  The FT goes for the more sedate approach: “May eases Brexit fears but warns UK will walk away from 'bad deal’” is their splash.

There’s a lot to unpack here. The government is coming under fire for David Davis’ remark that even if Parliament rejects the Brexit deal, we will leave anyway. But as far as the Article 50 process is concerned, that is how it works. You either take the deal that emerges from the Article 50 process or have a disorderly exit. There is no process within exiting the European Union for a do-over.  

The government’s threat to Brussels makes sense from a negotiating perspective. It helps the United Kingdom get a better deal if the EU is convinced that the government is willing to suffer damage if the deal isn’t to its liking. But the risk is that the damage is seen as so asymmetric – and while the direct risk for the EU27 is bad, the knock-on effects for the UK are worse – that the threat looks like a bad bluff. Although European leaders have welcomed the greater clarity, Michel Barnier, the lead negotiator, has reiterated that their order of priority is to settle the terms of divorce first, agree a transition and move to a wider deal after that, rather than the trade deal with a phased transition that May favours.

That the frontpage of the Irish edition of the Daily Mail says “May is wrong, any deal is better than no deal” should give you an idea of how far the “do what I want or I shoot myself” approach is going to take the UK with the EU27. Even a centre-right newspaper in Britain's closest ally isn't buying that Britain will really walk away from a bad deal. 

Speaking of the Irish papers, there’s a big element to yesterday’s speech that has eluded the British ones: May’s de facto abandonment of the customs union and what that means for the border between the North and the South. “May’s speech indicates Border customs controls likely to return” is the Irish Times’ splash, “Brexit open border plan “an illusion”” is the Irish Independent’s, while “Fears for jobs as ‘hard Brexit’ looms” is the Irish Examiner’s.

There is widespread agreement in Westminster, on both sides of the Irish border and in the European Union that no-one wants a return to the borders of the past. The appetite to find a solution is high on all sides. But as one diplomat reflected to me recently, just because everyone wants to find a solution, doesn’t mean there is one to be found. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.