The Tunisian president has denied claims that he made anti-Semitic remarks this week while trying to calm youths after days of unrest.
Kais Saied’s statement was in response to allegations by the Conference of European Rabbis that he accused Jews of being responsible “for the instability of the country,” during a discussion with residents of Mnihla, a suburb of the capital Tunis, over protests concerning the economic situation in the country.
In a video uploaded to the Facebook page of the Presidency of Tunisia, Saied is heard denouncing in Arabic the protests, which he said were the work of divisive forces. Then he added a phrase that sounded like “the Jews,” or “al yahood.”
The CER statement, issued Tuesday, said such talk “constitutes an immediate threat for the physical and moral integrity of Tunisian Jewish Citizens.” The organization asked the head of state to retract his words.
The statement, relayed by some Hebrew media, caused an uproar, forcing Saied to address the allegations, which his office firmly denied.
In a statement Wednesday night, his office denounced the “propagation of false information,” saying it amounted to “calumny.”
لقاء رئيس الجمهورية قيس سعيد مع مجموعة من المواطنين من متساكني حي الرفاهة بالمنيهلة
The groundswell of anger grew out of economic and social ills and failed promises of opportunities that flowed from Tunisia’s revolution 10 years ago. The unrest began amid a four-day lockdown that started January 14 — the day Tunisia marked its revolution.
“The president mentioned no religion and there was no reasonable motive to deal with the question of religion in the context of protests,” his office’s statement said.
It said the president spoke with the chief rabbi of Tunisia, Haim Bittan, to reassure him that Tunisian Jews enjoy “the solicitude and protection of the Tunisian state, like all other citizens.”
Saied also used the occasion to underscore his fervent defense of Palestinians’ rights “to their land,” referring to Israeli-occupied territory, while saying that position is not linked to religious freedom.
There are an estimated 1,500 Jews in Tunisia, mainly on the island of Djerba.