CAIRO: France is the latest European country to issue a travel warning to the region in the wake of uprisings over a cartoon depiction of the Prophet Mohammed. French citizens have been advised to be extremely vigilant if traveling to Egypt, Afghanistan, Iran, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Turkey, Lebanon, Syria or the Palestinian territories. Denmark, Norway and Sweden have issued similar warnings, and temporarily halted diplomatic relations with Lebanon and Syria following riots against their embassies last week.
Foreign Minister Ahmed Abul-Gheit on Monday called the recent backlash the early signs of a campaign and a clash between the West and Islam, adding that only through dialogue can peace be achieved. European Union Foreign Policy Chief Javier Solana met with President Hosni Mubarak in Cairo as part of his five-country Middle East tour geared at repairing strained relations by cartoons published of the Prophet Mohammed. Solana comes from Saudi Arabia and is scheduled to visit Jordan, Israel and the Palestinian territories.
Meanwhile in Egypt this week, thousands of protesters gathered at Al-Azhar University to condemn the publication of the cartoon in a newspaper in Denmark, then again in France and Germany. A newspaper in Jordan published the cartoon in connection with news reports on the violence. The editor was fired and later, arrested for printing the controversial caricature.
It seems the purpose is to strike at the heart of the Arab nations and push Europe away from its balanced positions in regard to Iraq, the Arab-Israeli conflict and other issues, explains Mohammed El-Sayed Said, deputy director of the Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies. More specifically, it further persuades Europeans to think that Muslims and Arabs are supporting terrorism and have an extremism culture, bent on the destruction of Western cultures.
Travel warnings to the Arab world have regularly been renewed in recent years, first with the uprising of the second Intifada.
Tourism in the region took a massive hit as Westerners opted traveling to Asia or staying close to home given heightened accounts of violence. Last year, the United States, as well as a number of European issued travel warnings to Egypt following bombings in Taba and then later in Cairo and Sharm El-Sheikh.
In 1997, a number of countries, including Japan, issued travel warnings to Egypt following a deadly massacre at the Temple of Queen Hatshepsut that left 70 people dead, most of them foreigners.
A series of events have badly distorted the image of Arabs and Muslims in the Europeans minds, explains Said. However, this excessive reaction to the publication of the cartoon has been quite artificial and tough.