In the 13 months that Mohammed Abdel-Rahman has been protesting outside the U.S. embassy in Cairo, he has become so familiar to American officials that they sometimes stop at his small open-air sit-in to exchange pleasantries with him.
Never mind that he is the son of Omar Abdel-Rahman, better known as the Blind Sheik, jailed in North Carolina for his role in a plot to bomb several targets in the U.S., or that Mohammed himself was captured in Afghanistan 10 years later and imprisoned in Egypt until the fall of 2010, or even that he is a prominent member of the fundamentalist Salafi movement, which rejects, sometimes with violence, most modern and Western mores. Sitting with a motley group of supporters on blue plastic mats under banners demanding his father's release, the balding 39-year-old with a scraggly beard looks entirely unthreatening, even avuncular.
Abdel-Rahman jokes that his sit-in helps enhance the embassy's safety because it blocks one of the roads to the walled compound. The security guards leave him be, he says, "because we're not causing trouble." But he was on hand when the troublemakers arrived at the embassy in the late afternoon of Sept. 11 to protest the YouTube trailer of a scurrilous anti-Islam movie made in California. Like Abdel-Rahman, many of the protesters were Salafis. He asked them to use another approach road because "we didn't want any problems here." Such is the respect he commands that they complied. He says he joined the protesters briefly, but when arguments broke out among the newcomers--some wanted to break into the compound, others simply to hold a sit-in--he decided to return to his blue mats.
The protests swelled, got louder and then got out of hand; the faction that wanted to breach the embassy walls won out. Screaming anti-American slogans, some men tore down the U.S. flag flying over the building and burned it. The problems Abdel-Rahman had been trying to avoid had just begun: over the next two days, Salafi mobs organized aggressive protests against the YouTube video at the embassy and elsewhere across Egypt. President Mohamed Morsy, plainly more mindful of Salafi wrath than U.S. indignation, was slow to condemn the assault on the embassy. Only on the third day, after a stern telephonic talking-to by President Obama, did Morsy's Islamist movement, the Muslim Brotherhood, seize the initiative from the Salafis by holding its own demonstrations in Tahrir Square.
Abdel-Rahman and the flag burners at the embassy represent the quandary facing fundamentalist Islam after the revolution that toppled the Arab world's most durable dictators: Should they take advantage of new freedoms to express themselves peacefully or use the familiar tools of indignation and religious rage to disrupt the transition to democracy and build their own political power? How the Salafis answer that question--and how moderate Muslim political parties respond--may determine the fate of the Arab Spring.