What happened yesterday breaks down into four very distinct stories, and don't trust anybody who tries to lump them together: (1) the military-style assault on the US consulate in Benghazi, Libya, that killed our ambassador to Libya and burned down the consulate; (2) the completely unrelated mob protest on the US embassy in Cairo that was, almost inexplicably, allowed to enter and vandalize the compound; (3) the covert-ops media provocation that was behind the Cairo riot; and (4) the story of how one American political campaign tried to politicize this before knowing any of the facts and shot their foot off. I'm not going to say anything further about story #4; it's beneath my contempt and will, frankly, no longer matter when people's attention drifts away from in it the next couple of days. But those first three stories have fascinating back story, and/or fascinating recent reporting, that you may want to know while your co-workers and friends are blathering about them.
What Just Happened in Libya
It doesn't make any sense to talk about what just happened, either in Libya or in Egypt, without catching you up on what's been happening in each of those countries since their previous military dictatorships were toppled, a year and a half ago, in the Arab Spring. Both countries are having the same problem that every post-revolutionary government has in its first couple of years: until the victorious side (and, to some extent, the supporters of the vanquished out-going government, and to even larger extent the vast majority who don't care as long as they have a job and can afford to pay their bills and there's some semblance of policing and sanitation) agree on what constitutes a legitimate post-dictatorship government, there are a lot of heavily armed groups running around, confident that they can overthrow the next government if they don't like it any better, who remain to be convinced that they won't need to.
Libya is living through the very-nearly worst case scenario for this: village and tribal and ethnic and religious militia groups there, that were only loosely tied to the unified rebel command, armed themselves for the war by over-running and seizing pretty nearly the entire Libyan Army arsenal, and until they're convinced that the new government won't try to crush their village or suppress their faith or exploit their ethnic group or loot their tribe, they're not even vaguely willing to return those weapons to the new provisional Libyan army. On the other hand, nobody's in a hurry to use them, either, because the older members of those militias remember what happened to Afghanistan after the Russians retreated. They don't want to see the country carved up into warlord fiefdoms ruled by drug dealers and their rape gangs like the ones that ruled Afghanistan between when the Russians left and when the Taliban came in. Negotiations among the militias in Libya are still ongoing, shows of good faith are still offered and watched for, and you shouldn't judge them for taking their time; after the US overthrew its British colonial governors, it took us 11 years to write a constitution with agreed-upon legitimacy. In the meantime, though, the official Libyan army is kind of a joke and, in the very short term, that's kind of how most Libyans want it. After decades of military dictatorship, you can hardly blame them.
But when first the small protest outside the US consulate in Benghazi, Libya, and then the consulate itself, came under attack by a large, professional, and heavily armed militia, that did leave nobody to defend it but a couple of wildly-under-armed, poorly organized Libyan soldiers and whatever small bodyguard staff the US ambassador travels with when briefly visiting a consulate that isn't in the capital city. The defenders were surprised and completely outgunned; the consulate burned to the ground with the US ambassador inside.
To my annoyance, this has an awful lot of ill-informed people blaming the new Libyan government and demanding we bomb Libya, even though the people who did it are, clearly and unambiguously, the enemies of that government. Which enemies? We may not know definitively for days, but we do know this: the US recently assassinated, in Libya, the guy who was holding the same job the current head of al Qaeda held until SEAL Team 6 created a vacancy above him. Several hours before the attack, to commemorate 9/11, that current head of al Qaeda called on al Qaeda in Libya to avenge this guy's death. If this is a coincidence, it is a heck of a big one, an implausibly big one.
So, yes, by all means, lets bomb Libya's provisional government -- if our foreign policy goal is to weaken them for a deeply unpopular al Qaeda takeover. Fortunately, I don't expect that to happen. Instead, I expect Glenn Greenwald to wring his hands over yet more US drone-strike assassinations against suspected al Qaeda members, against the expansion of the Drone War to yet another country. Or maybe, just maybe, the drone operators and the CIA will do what they did all through the Libyan Civil War: use the drones to provide targeting data to the equally highly motivated provisional Libyan army, who (according to very early reporting) may have even lost one or more of their own in that attack, and let them take care of it. That'd be better for all of us, no matter what the ignorant say.
What Just Happened in Egypt
Egypt had an easier transition from military dictatorship to provisional rule, if only in the short term. There was no civil war, because when push came to shove, the Egyptian army sacrificed the dictator in hopes that if they took part in the revolution, one of their own would end up in charge. This did not happen; for good or ill, the larger, more populist Muslim Brotherhood won the presidential election, and the parliament is divided between several flavors of Islamist, secular militarist right-wingers, and secular liberals. This is leaving Egyptian governance not all that far off from where US governance is right now, unable to implement any policy because everybody has a veto; all they can do is keep the lights turned on. Morale on all three sides is pretty poor.
The protest outside the US embassy in Cairo was publicly announced in advance. As a precaution, the ambassador sent everybody home early that day, just to make life easier for everybody, leaving the embassy to be guarded by (mostly) Egyptian soldiers. Under normal circumstances, that should have been just fine. Americans "know" that the US Marine Corps has responsibility for protecting our embassies; like a lot of things the American people "know," it's decades out of date at best. For one thing, that job was outsourced to private military companies decades ago. But more to the point, to avoid the ugly sight of US soldiers beating up or shooting the locals, it's standard practice in every country (including ours) for local police, backed up by the local army if need be, to be the first ring of defense around any embassy, and they understand (usually) that it's potentially an act of war if they don't.
But this time it didn't happen. By all reports, the first time somebody tried to climb the wall into the US embassy, someone who was almost certainly expecting to be stopped by the Egyptian soldiers up on the wall, the soldiers just turned aside and let him. I suspect it was because of poor morale; alternatively, they may have sympathized with the protesters. The building was lightly damaged, mostly spray paint, before the protesters got bored with it and went home. The soldiers may have thought that, since their superiors do not like the Egyptian president, the generals would have their backs. That's not what's happening. All parties in Egypt have condemned the riot, nobody's standing up for the rioters or for those soldiers, and at least four arrests have been made, and that embassy is swarming with US and Egyptian soldiers backed by broad popular support in both countries; it is not going to happen again.
So What Was this Thing about an Anti-Muslim Movie?
That story's still developing. It also mostly doesn't matter, for reasons I'll get to in a moment. And it's almost-entertainingly weird, in that faintly cyberpunk way that a lot of news stories in the early 21st century are. Ostensibly, this is what it's about: the supposedly impending world-wide big-screen movie debut of a vicious satire about the prophet Mohammed by Jewish movie producer Sam Bacile called The Innocence of Muslims. What makes this all very weird, and faintly cyberpunk, is that even less of that is true than you would think. You would expect it to not be true that The Innocence of Muslims has a global theatrical distribution deal. You would be correct; that is, in fact, not true. But what's even weirder is that none of the rest of it seems to be true, either: the film The Innocence of Muslims "debut" was whoever the producer was and 9 of his friends watching it on a rented theater screen. What they watched may not have even been the movie The Innocence of Muslims because, so far, nobody at that small party has come forward and said that what they were shown was a whole movie. Nor was Sam Bacile, the producer, the one showing it, because there is no such person as Sam Bacile -- and, oh yeah, the guy who isn't Sam Bacile also isn't Jewish.
So what in the heck really did happen?
There is a YouTube clip that calls itself a trailer for The Innocence of Muslims. It's not a whole lot longer than any fake movie trailer, like the ones that run on Cracked.com or CollegeHumor.com. The production values are on the lower end of that scale. The actors who appear in the trailer have rushed to reporters to say that they were told to show up costumed for a Biblical-era epic, were given nonsensical lines to say, and that they were lip-dubbed for the trailer. In the roughly a year since the trailer showed up on YouTube, it was seen by about as many people as you'd expect to see for any random amateurish YouTube attention-whoring, somewhere in the hundreds. Several months ago, another copy of that trailer was translated into Arabic and re-released, and even fewer people noticed. This isn't even the Jutlands Post cartoon controversy, in scale; the Jutlands Post has readers.
According to the film's press release, the film was produced and financed by an Israeli real estate developer named Sam Bacile. Now that protesters have succeeded in attracting attention, it took reporters less than 24 hours to tie the film to two Egyptians, both Coptic Christians: the film was financed and produced by convicted bank fraudster Nakoula Basseley Nakoula, and promoted by an Egyptian anti-Muslim politician who's claimed religious asylum in the US following Islamist violence against Copts, Morris Sadek. Nobody has reported, yet, on Nakoula's motive, but Sadek's isn't hard to guess: he claims to have lost family when an Islamist mob attacked Copts during the chaos of the Arab Spring.
Because of that, Sadek is seen as sympathetic by some Copts back home; some of them read his web page, his attempt to create a Coptic "government in exile" for Egypt, and presumably gossiped about it. The gossip about the film caught the attention of a couple of medium-obscure Egyptian religious figures who have shows on satellite TV, who utterly misunderstood the word "premier" to mean something like a Hollywood premier, which would usually mean a kick-off to global distribution. Those TV networks are watched by dozens of people in many cities, all of whom showed up at US embassies and consulates to protest. And, frankly, nobody would have noticed or cared; ill-informed religious fanatics showing up by the half-dozens to protest something that only exists in their heads is something that happens every couple of days, maybe every day, somewhere in the world. But because someone, probably al Qaeda in Libya, coincidentally picked that same day for a medium-impressive military raid, this time you heard about it.
And what is the "it," really, that you heard about? A couple of guys, one a disgruntled politician with a small audience and one with some money left over from a career in bank fraud, launched an entirely private-sector covert op, intended to overthrow a government by playing "let's you and him fight" between that government and its nuclear-armed neighbor. And they almost got away with it, if small-market journalists and Internet hobbyists hadn't pierced their slapdash security. Wasn't Bruce Sterling writing stuff like this 20 years ago?