Tunis, Tunisia – Dozens of Tunisians gathered on the capital’s main avenue on Monday evening to protest against a planned visit by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
Prince Mohammed, commonly known by his initials MBS, is expected to arrive in Tunisia on Tuesday afternoon as part of a regional tour as he makes his way to the G20 summit set to take place in Argentina at the end of the month.
It is also MBS’s first overseas tour after the killing of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul two months ago. The murder – widely seen as orchestrated by the crown prince – created an international firestorm against Saudi Arabia that continues to reverberate.
“As a Tunisian citizen, I reject bin Salman’s visit to Tunis,” Achraf Aouadi, a civil society activist, told Al Jazeera.
Tunisia adheres to a “human rights framework” that should protect the rights of the Yemeni people, preserve journalists’ right to do their work, and grant female activists rights to express themselves freely, said Aouadi.
In addition to the Khashoggi killing, Aouadi was referring to recent reports on the alleged torture and sexual harassment of female Saudi activists, as well as the four-year Saudi-led war in Yemen which has created the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.
“It provokes me that we [Tunisia] are dismissing this framework for economic interests,” he said.
While the Saudi Royal Court did not clarify the official visit’s programme, Tunisia has long been a recipient of Saudi aid money. The two countries’ air forces held their first ever-joint exercises in October, signalling tighter relations.
‘Tunisia, land of revolution’
Faces painted in stark black and white, a group of performance artists cleared the cascading series of steps where the hundred-something protesters gathered to perform a mime sketch.
Amid the crowd’s cheers and giggles, the lead artist, dressed in traditional tribal garb, began to throw paper planes at his peers.
They were acting out the war on Yemen where a Saudi-Emirati led military alliance has used air raids against Houthi rebel targets, but also hit many civilian areas. Tens of thousands are believed to have died since the war began.
“Simply said, we came here today to say that the Tunisian people – who have exported the revolution to the rest of the [Arab] world and who fought for justice, dignity and human rights – cannot welcome a criminal like bin Salman,” Hamza Nasri, the mime artist playing MBS, said.
Tunisia made world headlines in 2011 after long-time autocrat Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali was deposed following mass demonstrations, triggering a wave of uprisings across the Middle East that saw the departure of three other Arab presidents.
Instead, Ben Ali was handed lengthy prison sentences and hefty monetary fines in a series of trials in absentia, on charges ranging from complicity in the killing of several hundred protesters during the uprising to misappropriating public funds, to trafficking in drugs, weapons and archaeological artefacts.
“Perhaps as a people in the past we [Tunisians] could not speak our minds. But today we can,” said Emna Mizouni, another protester.
“It is shameful for Tunisia, which received the Nobel Peace Prize, to receive someone like this,” she said of the Saudi crown prince.
In 2015, the Tunisian National Dialogue Quarter, a democracy group credited with staving off another uprising in the country, was awarded the international peace prize.
MBS also visited the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Egypt – all staunch allies of Saudi Arabia – and is expected in Argentina for the G20 summit on Friday.
Because Tunisia is a pioneering country when it comes to promoting human rights, “there is no reason why not to come out and say no to MBS”, said Mizouni.
“Everyone is against whitewashing oppression. Unfortunately, our Arab brothers could not organise similar protests,” she said, adding the demonstration not only highlighted Tunisians’ anger but spoke “in the name of all oppressed Arab people” who could not organise publicly to condemn the crown prince’s policies.
Similar performance art protests took place when Ben Ali invited late Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to Tunis in 2005, and several Tunisians also protested a visit by Turkish president Tayyip Erdogan.
“This is not new,” said Aouadi. The point is, “post-revolution Tunisia continues to receive leaders and officials with blood on their hands,” he continued. The same people who protested Sharon and others are here to express their rejection of that, said Aouadi.
MBS’ trip to Tunis, made known last week, has generated widespread condemnation among civil society for days.
On Monday, the Tunisian Journalists’ Syndicate (SNJT) announced it planned to file a lawsuit against Prince Mohammed at an international court for “war crimes committed by the Saudi regime in Yemen”.
In an open letter addressed to President Beji Caid Essebsi days prior, the union slammed MBS as a “danger for the safety and the peace of the region and the world, and a real threat to freedom of expression”.
“Tunisians reject the war crimes being committed in Yemen and the obvious human rights transgressions against Saudi activists like Jamal Khashoggi,” Sakina Abdel Samad, an SNJT member, told reporters during a press conference.
A giant poster of the Saudi prince holding a chainsaw has been hung outside the group’s office. “No to the desecration of Tunisia, land of the revolution,” read the banner.
In another symbolic move, a group of 50 lawyers announced they too filed a lawsuit with a Tunisian court to pressure the government to cancel the crown prince’s visit.
“We have officially requested an investigation into crimes committed by bin Salman,” Nizar Boujalal, a spokesman for the lawyers, told reporters.
MBS’s involvement in Yemen – in addition to his alleged role in Khashoggi’s killing and the detention of the female activists – has put the country’s ties with Western allies under tight scrutiny.
It remains to be seen which leaders shake hands and pose for photos with the crown prince at the G20 in Buenos Aires later this week.