Mainly ultraconservative protesters climbed the walls of the U.S. Embassy in Egypt's capital Tuesday and brought down the American flag, replacing it with a black Islamist flag to protest a U.S.-produced film attacking the Prophet Muhammad. Hours later, armed men in eastern Libya also stormed the U.S. consulate there and set it on fire as anger spread.--> It was the first time ever that the U.S. Embassy in Cairo has been breached and comes as Egypt is struggling to overcome months of unrest following the ouster of Hosni Mubarak's autocratic regime. U.S. officials said no Americans were reported harmed in the assaults in Cairo or the eastern city of Benghazi.
The unrest in Cairo began when hundreds of protesters marched to the downtown embassy, gathering outside its walls and chanting against the movie and the U.S.
"Say it, don't fear: Their ambassador must leave," the crowd chanted.
Dozens of protesters then scaled the embassy walls, and several went into the courtyard and took down the flag from a pole. They brought it back to the crowd outside, which tried to burn it, but failing that tore it apart. The protesters on the wall then raised on the flagpole a black flag with a Muslim declaration of faith, "There is no god but God and Muhammad is his prophet." The flag, similar to the banner used by Al Qaeda, is commonly used by ultraconservatives around the region.
The crowd grew throughout the evening with thousands standing outside the embassy, chanting "Islamic, Islamic. The right of our prophet will not die." A group of women in black veils and robes that left only their eyes exposed chanted, "Worshippers of the Cross, leave the Prophet Muhammad alone."
Dozens of riot police lined up along the embassy walls but did not stop protesters from climbing the wall. But it appeared protesters were no longer going into the embassy compound. The U.S. Embassy said on its Twitter account says that there will be no visa services on Wednesday because of the protests.
The protest was sparked by outrage over a video being promoted by an extreme anti-Muslim Egyptian Christian campaigner in the U.S., clips of which are available on the social website YouTube and dubbed in Egyptian Arabic. The video depicts Muhammad as a fraud, showing him having sex and calling for massacres.
Muslims find it offensive to depict Muhammad in any fashion, much less in an insulting way. The 2005 publication of 12 caricatures of the prophet Muhammad in a Danish newspaper triggered riots in many Muslim countries.
In a sign of growing anger over the film, Libyans set fire to the U.S. consulate in the eastern city of Benghazi and fired in the air after a protest against the film. Witnesses said much of the consulate was burned.
The Cairo embassy is located in a diplomatic area in Garden city, where the British and Italian embassies are located, only a few blocks away from Tahrir Square, the center of last year's uprising that led to the ouster of Hosni Mubarak. The U.S. Embassy is built like a fortress, with a wall several meters (yards) high. But security has been scaled back in recent months, with several roadblocks leading to the facility removed after legal court cases by residents complaining their access to nearby streets was blocked.
The Egyptian Foreign Ministry promised in a statement to provide the necessary security for diplomatic missions and embassies on its territory and warned that "such incidents will negatively impact the image of stability in Egypt, which will have consequences on the life of its citizens."
One protester Hossam Ahmed said he was among those who entered the embassy compound and replaced the American flag with the black one. He said the group has now removed the black flag from the pole and laid it instead on a ladder on top of the wall.
A young bearded man, Abdel-Hamid Ibrahim said, "This is a very simple reaction to harming our prophet."
In Washington, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said the U.S. was working with Egyptian authorities to try to restore order.
Only a few staff members were still inside, as embassy security had sent most staff home early after learning of the upcoming protest, a U.S. official said, speaking on condition of anonymity because he wasn't authorized to speak publicly on the matter.
Sam Bacile, an American citizen who said he produced, directed and wrote the two-hour film said he had not anticipated such a furious reaction.
Speaking from a telephone with a California number, he said the film was produced in English and he doesn't know who dubbed it in Arabic.
"The main problem is I am the first one to put on the screen someone who is (portraying) Muhammad. It makes them mad," he said in an interview in a telephone number in California. "But we have to open the door. After 9/11 everybody should be in front of the judge, even Jesus, even Muhammad."
He said many of the film's cast quit half way through the production, which he started "three or four" years ago, because they were afraid of Muslims.
He said the film also addresses the persecution of Copts in Egypt and blames the U.S. and its allies for fighting Muslims. "The U.S. should fight the ideology, not the people."
Morris Sadek, an Egyptian-born Christian in the U.S. known for his anti-Islam views, told The Associated Press from Washington that he was promoting the video on his website and on certain TV stations, which he did not identify.
He said the video "explains the problems of the Copts who suffer from Muslims," which he blamed on the Koran itself.
For several days, Egyptian media have been reporting on the video, playing some excerpts from it and blaming Sadek for it, with ultraconservative clerics going on air to denounce it.
Medhat Klada, a representative of Coptic Christian organizations in Europe, said Sadek's views are not representative of expatriate Copts.
"He is an extremist ... We don't go down this road. He has incited the people (in Egypt) against Copts," he said, speaking from Switzerland. "We refuse any attacks on religions because of a moral position."
But he said he was concerned about the backlash from angry Islamists. "They don't know dialogue and they think that Islam will be offended from a movie."