Tunisians Fear Protests Scared Away Tourists

Tunisian authorities have condemned the attacks on the American embassy and an American school. Many people were surprised that Tunisia was involved in the violence following a film mocking the prophet Mohammed which was made in the United States. Critics say the violence is a wake-up call for the Tunisian government.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

This is MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

And I'm Steve Inskeep. Let's catch up, now, on protests that have swept through nation after nation, in response to an anti-Islamic film. And today, we go to Tunisia. It was the first nation to stage a successful uprising in the Arab Spring. It's a popular destination for tourists. And violence there, last week, took some by surprise. Eleanor Beardsley reports.

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: Tunisia is still convulsing from last Friday's attack on the American Embassy, and school, that left four Tunisians dead and 46 wounded. While most Tunisians are shocked and apologetic over what happened, others appear emboldened.

(SOUNDBITE OF DEMONSTRATION)

BEARDSLEY: Hundreds of young men outside a mosque Monday chanted slogans, and waved their fists along with the black flag of militant Islam. "Allahu Akbar" - "God is great," they yelled; and, "Obama, Obama; we're all called Osama." This group of young men says that's a direct warning to President Obama.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Foreign language spoken)

BEARDSLEY: The reaction from the Islamic world to this film was completely normal, they say; and, these attacks will continue until America, who made this film with the help of the Jews, apologizes for it.

These men say Tunisia is headed for a second revolution - a real one, this time - to install God's law, or Shariah; not democracy.

(SOUNDBITE OF CROWD CHATTER)

BEARDSLEY: Across town at trendy cafes - like this one, in the upscale neighborhood of La Marsa - such talk sends shivers up people's spines. In June, hard-line Muslims known as Salafists showed up at an art gallery here, and destroyed paintings they said were offensive to the Prophet Muhammad.

Tunis University literature professor Mounir Khelifa says the moderate, Islamist-led government has let the Salafists run wild over the past year. He calls the State Department's travel warning, and evacuation of non-essential personnel, a wake-up call.

MOUNIR KHELIFA: I think it's meant to send a strong message, the subtext of which is: Now you must decide whether the Salafists are your radical wing and own up to them; or cut off any link with the Salafists, and denounce them as violent terrorists.

BEARDSLEY: Faycal Nacer is spokesperson for the moderate Islamist party Ennahda. He says the government is investigating whether hooligan elements may have mixed in with the Salafist, to attack the embassy.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

FAYCAL NACER: (Through translator) Nevertheless, this incident will certainly lead to a tougher campaign against those Salafist hard-liners who are violent and threatening democracy. Security in this country is the red line that nobody should be able to cross.

BEARDSLEY: Riot police surrounded the Tunis mosque yesterday, hoping to arrest a radical cleric suspected of fomenting the embassy attack. But he got away, in a throng of supporters. Tunisian President Moncef Marzouki is a longtime human rights activist. Marzouki tried to reassure American diplomats. But he said it was important not to become like former dictator Ben Ali.

PRESIDENT MONCEF MARZOUKI: We don't want to behave like Ben Ali, you know. Ben Ali used to arrest them by thousand, and torture and so forth. And we don't want to look like Ben Ali. But at the same time, we have to defend this democracy. And this is...

BEARDSLEY: But less than two years after Tunisia's revolution touched off the Arab Spring, many Tunisians wonder if the moderate Islamists are willing to defend the country's fragile democracy. And with the economy worsening, many Tunisians who voted for Ennadha the first time, tell me they won't support the party again.

(SOUNDBITE OF AIRPORT ANNOUNCEMENT)

BEARDSLEY: Tunis' Carthage Airport has been busy over the last few days, as diplomats leave the country. Tunisian businessman Ali Bouraoui is returning home after a weekend in Paris.

ALI BOURAOUI: It is shocking. I was - I went to Paris for two days. When I saw the news on French channels, they placed us as - the same level as Sudan. I was shocked. This is not Tunisia that we know. I mean, I'm - we have never been, you know, leveled with these kind of terrorist countries.

BEARDSLEY: Tunisians like Bouraoui say the government must crack down quickly on extremists, if it wants to repair the country's image and not scare away the tourists - the backbone of the Tunisian economy.

Eleanor Beardsley, NPR News, Tunis.

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