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Egyptian students find peaceful way to protest Muhammad cartoons

CAIRO, Egypt—Students at Cairo University chose their weapons carefully as they prepared to vent anger Tuesday over the now-notorious Danish cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad.

After weeks of watching the violent—even deadly—reactions of Muslims across the globe, the Egyptian students were determined that their protest would be different. They assembled an arsenal of black markers, skinny red pens and packs of colored pencils. Then, with broad strokes and dainty curlicues, they filled reams of paper with the fury, sadness and disgust they felt over the lampooning of Islam's messenger.

The result was a somber campus display of political cartoons.

One showed a Danish strongman struggling to balance weights labeled "freedom of speech" and "respect for religion." Another showed a man wrapped in a Danish flag cowering before a giant made up of stick-figure Muslims carrying one another. The slogan: "We might look little, but if we unite, we can do something."

One of the biggest handwritten messages said, "If we talk about Jews, it's anti-Semitism. If we talk about blacks, it's racism. But if they insult Muhammad, it's freedom of expression. This is terrorism!"

No government manipulated the tiny, peaceful protest in Cairo. No religious zealots capitalized on the outrage. It was just raw emotion expressed through ink on paper, the same medium as the controversial Danish cartoonists.

"As Muslims, it is important for us to know how the West views us so we know how to respond," said Mustafa Mohammed, a 21-year-old law student. "As the prophet, peace be upon him, said: `He who wants to be safe from a people knows their language.'"

An Islamic student group came up with the idea for the exhibition, and members said they were surprised at the outpouring from classmates. The display booth stands outside the halls of the political science department, where students dropped by to doodle between classes. By midday Tuesday, students had left dozens of drawings and statements such as "They've crossed their limits and we've got to stop them" and "Let us defend our dignity!"

One student even had dug up quotations praising the prophet from the likes of Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw and French writer Alphonse de Lamartine.

"When I first saw the cartoons, I was so angry, but you can't show your anger in a nonpeaceful manner, like shooting embassies or killing each other," said Riham Nagi, 21, a political science student who helped organize the display. "All the Egyptian students like this idea, but there are still some foreign students who come up and say it's a matter of freedom of speech. They still don't accept that it (making fun of the prophet) was wrong."

Many of the students' drawings expressed pride in the boycott that's caused Danish products to disappear from the shelves of most supermarkets in the Middle East. By some estimates, the boycott is costing Danish firms up to $1.5 million a day.

Wissam Sherif, 19, and his friend, Ehab Erfan, 18, gazed at the display booth and lamented their breakfasts without Danish butter and their favorite Danish processed cheese. They laughed and said they were relieved that they'd outgrown Lego, the Danish toy maker.

"Wait. What about Nestle?" Sherif asked, with panic in his voice.

"No, it's Swiss," Erfan replied.

"Good," Sherif said. "Because I can't live without my Nescafe."

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(Knight Ridder Newspapers special correspondent Miret Naggar contributed to this report from Cairo.)

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(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): EGYPT-CARTOONS

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