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September 20, 2012

Tunisia Braces for Protests Over French Cartoons

by Lisa Bryant

A week after Muslims worldwide vented their anger at an anti-Islam film made in the United States, authorities in Tunisia are bracing for more unrest this Friday - this time because of French cartoons making fun of the Muslim Prophet Muhammad.

Right now it's a typical weekday afternoon in downtown Tunis. The main Habib Bourguiba Avenue is choked with traffic and pedestrians. One thing that is different, however, are the barbed wire and police flanking France's elegant embassy.

The extra security comes ahead of Friday prayers - and a day after a French magazine published cartoons mocking the Muslim Prophet Muhammad.

Tunisian authorities clearly don't want a repeat of last Friday, when violent demonstrations by Salafists outside the U.S. embassy here killed four Tunisians and injured dozens of others.  

​​Pausing before the French embassy, Tunisian businessman Hamdi Ashouri criticizes the violence.

But Ashouri said that Muslims respect other religions and they would never mock them. He said he will join any peaceful protests against the French cartoons on Friday.

Like Ashouri, bank employee Jihen Saber is worried about more violence to come. She said there's no security in Tunisia, that it is still recovering from its 2011 revolution. That makes her scared.

Last week's protests against the video, made by a private filmmaker in the U.S., were echoed across the Arab world. They are particularly striking in this North African country, though, where the regime of former president Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali jailed Islamists.

Today, Tunisia's ruling Islamist Ennahda party is trying to calm the situation - criticizing both the movie and the protesters.

Ennahda leader Rachid Ghannouchi said he was shocked at the violence of last week's demonstrators who destroyed American embassy cars, set fire to an American school and attacked businesses. He said protesters have the right to express their views, but must do so peacefully.

About 30,000 French nationals live in Tunisia. Ahead of Friday prayers, France has announced it will close its embassies and schools in some 20 countries, including Tunisia.