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Focus of anti-US protests in the Middle East evolve

Analysis: While anti-Islam film was a trigger, longstanding grievances against US influence and deep, unaddressed socioeconomic problems appear to be fueling the unrest.

AMMAN, Jordan — Demonstrators staged anti-American protests in at least five Arab capitals and other cities around the region Friday, setting foreign embassies alight and calling for the expulsion of US ambassadors.

The protests, sparked by a decidedly anti-Islam video produced in California and posted online, but which now include other issues as well, have continued for four straight days. Beginning first in Egypt and Libya, they have now spread — in varying degrees and forms — to about 20 countries around the world.

On Friday, security forces killed four protesters outside the US embassy in Yemen. Protesters in Tunis, the capital of Tunisia, set fire to the US consulate there. Dozens were injured in the Egyptian capital, Cairo. In the Sudanese capital Khartoum, the German embassy was set on fire by a mob of protesters staging a demonstration against the United States nearby. In Libya on Tuesday, in the most deadly incident, an armed attack on the US consulate there left US ambassador J. Christopher Stevens, and three other Americans, dead.

But even as the demonstrations widened Friday, the aims and grievances of the protesters became significantly less clear. While the video, a roughshod production that depicts the Muslim Prophet Muhammad as a violent and barbaric philanderer, was a trigger for the violence, longstanding grievances against US influence in the region and deep, unaddressed socioeconomic problems appeared be feeding the unrest.

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In some cases, local political groups or even governments, appeared to use the video as cover for their own political gain — whether in bids to seek popularity or to deflect attention from their own economic and political malaise.

In Cairo, Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi first responded to protesters storming Cairo’s US Embassy on Tuesday by condemning the film’s message. It was a clear effort to shore up popular domestic support, particularly among his Islamist base and ahead of looming parliamentary elections, analysts said.

His move backfired and the Muslim Brotherhood scrambled to repair relations with US President Barack Obama, who subsequently said Egypt was “not an ally” of the US in an interview with Telemundo, an American, Spanish-language television network.

“Morsi’s skills in crisis management have proved to be very low,” said Ziad Akl, political analyst at the Cairo-based Al Ahram Center for Strategic Studies. “This isn’t about rhetoric anymore — this isn’t about making popular speeches in Tahrir Square. This is about the mechanics of running a state, and he is completely ignorant of that.”

Indeed, the damage appeared to have been done. Protests in Cairo intensified and dozens of disaffected youth took their own opportunity to battle the long-hated — and still un-reformed — Egyptian riot police deployed to protect the US embassy, just blocks from the iconic Tahrir Square.

Egypt’s struggle for international funds, including from the International Monetary Fund, to stave-off a looming economic crisis that is pushing thousands into poverty, has been forced into the backseat as the violence continued and the showdown with the United States erupted.

In another cash-strapped Middle East nation facing renewed, and growing, protests calling for serious reform, the Jordanian government issued a statement condemning the film.

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Jordan’s Minister of Endowments and Islamic Affairs posted a lengthy and searing statement that called the makers of the film “murderers and criminals,” and demanded the US government hold them accountable.

Instead of strictly anti-government protests Friday, which have taken place without interruption across Jordan for months, demonstrators gathered both near and in-front of the US embassy in the capital Amman, burning US flags and calling for the expulsion of the US ambassador.

“Listen, listen, oh Obama! The entire nation is Osama!” chanted a hundreds-strong group of mainly Salafi, or fundamentalist Muslim, protesters at a mosque just one block from the US embassy here.

A Muslim Brotherhood-led protest elsewhere in the city saw demonstrators burn an American flag.

Protesters tied the video to the decades-long US role in the region, from the support of Israel’s occupation of Palestinian land to the invasion of Iraq.

The US is a stalwart backer of the Hashemite monarchy in Jordan, providing its government with crucial financial and military support.

“We want to stop western aggression in our region,” said 25-year-old Abu Dojanah, an engineer from Amman. “The US occupies the entire world, and interferes in all Muslim nations. Even if they say they recognize Islam as a religion, they are liars.”

The Salafi protesters — led by a group of militants called the Salafi-jihadi Movement in Jordan, or Abu Sayyaf Group, after their leader — used the angry sentiment to further their own objectives at home.

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At the demonstration, which ended peacefully, Salafi imams and activist leaders called for the Jordanian constitution to be replaced with the Quran.

“The flag of Jordan should be the flag of Islam!” shouted one imam outside the US embassy in Amman, to a crowd of cheering onlookers.

Jordan’s liberal and secular activists stayed away from the anti-US protests Friday, calling it a government-manipulated distraction from the real issues.

“The old tools [used to repress anti-government protests aren’t working, so they are using new tools,” said Enas Mussallem, a social activist at the forefront of the Jordanian reform movement.

By focusing the Islamists on a US enemy, “they want us to be distracted,” she said.

Amer Shakhatreh contributed reporting from Amman, Jordan.