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Alone in the Arab world, Tunisians can protest visit by Saudi crown prince

Dozens of protesters gathered in central Tunis Nov. 27 as Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman was set to visit ahead of the Group of 20 summit in Argentina. (Video: AP)

Arab leaders generally don’t have to worry too much about protesters when they visit their neighbors. There has long been a kind of informal code against allowing criticism of brotherly nations and their heads of state unless some kind of feud is going on.

In the aftermath of the Arab Spring pro-democracy uprisings and the subsequent widespread crackdowns, that still holds true — with a few exceptions. One of them happens to be Tunisia.

In the North African country that overthrew longtime dictator Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, freedom of assembly and expression remains intact, and so people were able to say they aren’t thrilled with a visit by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman on Tuesday.

The de facto ruler of Saudi Arabia has been linked by intelligence agencies to the killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi on Oct. 2 in the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul. While admitting that the killing took place, the Saudis have denied that upper levels of government were involved, insisting instead that the decision to kill the Washington Post contributing columnist and critic of Saudi leadership was made at the scene by the head of a 15-man hit squad.

A group of activists in Tunis put on a clown show mocking Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman on the eve of his Nov. 27 visit to Tunisia. (Video: Muhammad Ben Taoufik via Storyful)

Before Mohammed attends the Group of 20 summit in Argentina this weekend, he has been visiting a number of Arab countries, including close allies such as the United Arab Emirates and Egypt, where he has been warmly received. The trips have been described as a kind of comeback tour amid global disapproval of the Khashoggi killing.

In Tunisia, however, the Bar Association attempted to file a motion to block the visit, while the Journalists’ Syndicate issued a statement describing Mohammed as a “true enemy of free expression.”

The activists also adorned the villa that serves as a syndicate headquarters with a two-story banner showing a robed Saudi figure carrying a massive chain saw — a reference to the apparent dismemberment of Khashoggi.

“No to the desecration of Tunisia, the land of the revolution,” the banner stated.

A similar-size poster showing a figure carrying a whip could be seen at the headquarters of a women’s association. “No welcome to the flogger of women,” it said.

Scores of protesters demonstrated Monday night on Tunis’s Avenue Habib Bourguiba in the center of the city, where the country’s final Arab Spring showdown with security forces occurred seven years ago.

The crowd protested in front of the national theater, carrying posters condemning Mohammed as a war criminal who is not welcome in Tunisia. There were even actors dressed as clowns and Saudis performing a satirical protest skit.

“The Tunisian revolution . . . cannot agree to receive him and allow him to clean himself of a murder,” Soukaina Abdessamad of the journalists’ union told reporters, according to Reuters. “We will stage protests on Monday and Tuesday.”

The next day, amid heavy security, hundreds marched down the avenue waving the Palestinian flag, chanting against the Saudi-led war on Yemen and calling for Mohammed to be kicked out. Many in the crowd waved saws — a further reference to the dismemberment of Khashoggi.

Although the numbers were fairly small for a Tunisian protest, the scene stood in marked contrast to images out of Egypt, where President Abdel Fatah al-Sissi welcomed the prince and where fake images of the pyramids adorned with the Saudi flag were widely shared on social media. In Cairo’s Tahrir Square, the epicenter of Egypt’s own Arab Spring revolt, a few people carrying Saudi and Egyptian flags posed for photographers Tuesday.

Although Egypt followed Tunisia with its own pro-democratic uprising in 2011, a military coup eventually brought Sissi to power, and all forms of anti-government protest have been banned.

In his final column, Khashoggi noted that Tunisia was one of the few states in the Arab world that still had some degree of freedom of expression.

Saudi Arabia is also providing refuge to Tunisia’s deposed dictator.

The Tunisian government has denounced Khashoggi’s killing and called for the truth to come out, but that has not stopped it from welcoming Mohammed.

Noureddine Ben Ticha, counselor to President Beji Caid Essebsi, said all Arab leaders were welcome as part of the effort to build ties with brotherly nations.

One of the posters that protesters carried Tuesday showed Essebsi, his pockets stuffed with money, washing the blood off a whistling prince’s hands.

Tunisia is also facing a faltering economy with a high unemployment rate and record levels of popular dissatisfaction. As a result, at least in some polls, people have expressed nostalgia for the pre-revolutionary era. It has also been hit by terrorist attacks. On Oct. 29, a woman blew herself up on the same avenue where Tuesday’s protest occurred.