Egypt’s president said on Thursday he supported peaceful protests, but that it was wrong to attack people or embassies, speaking in a televised address after demonstrators angry at a film about Prophet Mohammad scaled the U.S. embassy walls.
Demonstrators had clambered into the U.S. mission in Cairo, tore down the flag and burnt it on Tuesday. In Libya, gunmen attacked the U.S. consulate, killing the U.S. ambassador and three other diplomats.
“Expressing opinion, freedom to protest and announcing positions is guaranteed but without assaulting private or public property, diplomatic missions or embassies,” President Mohamed Mursi said in a televised statement. He pledged to protect foreigners and condemned the killing of the U.S. envoy in Libya.
At least 20 people have been injured in the renewed clashes between Egyptian protesters and security forces near the U.S. embassy in central Cairo on Thursday, Al Arabiya correspondent reported.
Clashes have been going on for hours since late Wednesday when security forces fired teargas to disperse stone-throwing demonstrators near the U.S. embassy in Cairo, some 24 hours after protesters scaled the walls and tore down the flag over a film insulting the Prophet Mohammed.
The battle on Wednesday, which lasted till after dawn on Thursday, was moved away from the headquarters of the U.S. embassy after the security personnel forced the frenzied crowd to move back towards the nearby Tahrir Square, according to a report carried out by Egypt’s independent daily.
A police vehicle was reportedly set on fire.
Initial reports also said that several protesters were injured, most of whom suffered the effects of tear gas. An official injury toll has yet to be revealed.
Live television showed hundreds of demonstrators gathered at the embassy, where late on Tuesday around 2,000 protested outside after some illegally entered the compound, ripped down the flag and burned it.
Mursi also pledged to protect foreigners and diplomatic missions in his country.
“We ought to protect all visitors, tourists and diplomatic missions,” Mursi told a news conference in Brussels. “In Egypt, as you know, and everywhere in the Arab world, there is anger regarding what happened recently, those who made up that short movie that defames the prophet. We strongly condemn that.”
He said the Egyptian government had assured U.S. President Barack Obama that it would not permit “any such event, any such occurrence in our country against the embassies present in our territories.”
“We will cooperate with the European Union, with the other countries, with the American administration in order to prevent such events in the future,” he said.
Mursi was in Brussels for his first visit to Europe since becoming Egypt’s first freely elected leader in June.
“We Egyptians reject any kind of assault or insult against our prophet. I condemn and oppose all who... insult our prophet,” Mursi, on an official visit to Brussels, said in remarks broadcast by Egyptian state television.
“(But) it is our duty to protect our guests and visitors from abroad... I call on everyone to take that into consideration, not to violate Egyptian law... not to assault embassies,” he added.
Mursi also condemned the Tuesday attack on the U.S. consulate in the eastern Libyan city of Benghazi, which claimed the lives of four American officials, including the ambassador.
“We condemn what happened in Benghazi,” Mursi said.
“We all know that killing innocent people goes against Islam. The freedom to express opinions and demonstrate... are guaranteed but without attacks on private or public property, diplomatic missions or embassies,” he continued.
Mursi said that he had spoken with US President Barack Obama and told him that it was necessary to put in place “legal measures which will discourage those seeking to damage relations... between the Egyptian and American people.”
Washington has a big mission in Egypt, partly because of a huge aid program that followed Egypt’s signing of a peace treaty with Israel in 1979. The United States gives $1.3 billion to Egypt’s military each year and offers the nation other aid.
Reuters witnesses saw protesters carrying petrol bombs and saw smoke billowing from one of the streets leading to the embassy.
“We would sacrifice our blood and soul for the prophet,” chanted protesters, most of whom did not carry banners or placards, every now and then during the clashes.
Demonstrators have demanded since Tuesday an apology from the U.S. government for the film, saying that if no such apology was issued by Friday they would stage an open-ended sit-in.
On this Friday, members of the Muslim Brotherhood, Salafist parties and others are planning a million-man rally in Tahrir Square to vent their anger.
State news agency MENA said earlier Egypt had arrested four people after Tuesday’s demonstration in which protesters blamed the film on the United States.
It said the four people were transferred to the prosecutor’s office, adding that security forces were still searching for others who scaled the walls of the U.S. mission.
Neither an ally nor an enemy
Earlier Wednesday, President Barack Obama said that Egypt was neither an ally nor an enemy of the United States.
“I don’t think that we would consider them an ally, but we don’t consider them an enemy,” Obama said in excerpts of an interview with Telemundo aired by MSNBC.
Egypt is led by President Mohammed Mursi, who was elected the country’s first Islamist leader in June following an uprising that toppled Hosni Mubarak early last year.
Worrying for Washington, Mursi’s first reaction was not to condemn the attack on the U.S. embassy but rather the film that provoked it.
“I think that we are going to have to see how they respond to this incident,” Obama said.
“Certainly in this situation, what we’re going to expect is that they are responsive to our insistence that our embassy is protected, our personnel is protected,” Obama said.
“And if they take actions that indicate they’re not taking those responsibilities, as all other countries do where we have embassies, I think that’s going to be a real big problem.”
Calling it a “work in progress,” Obama said the new government was “trying to find its way” and noted it was democratically elected.
The interview is to be aired in full over the coming days. Telemundo and MSNBC are affiliated.