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Mecca Cola does battle with Israel

PARIS, Feb. 12 (JTA) — The latest weapon in the battle against American imperialism and Zionist colonialism may bear a resemblance to Coke, but its political message may leave a sour taste for some. Since last September, Tunisian-born entrepreneur Tawfik Mathlouthi has already produced more than 3 million bottles of his Mecca Cola from a little bottling and manufacturing plant in the Paris suburbs. Behind the trademark red-and-black bottles that can be mistaken for Coke lies a pro-Palestinian political agenda. In France, Mathlouthi’s message is reflected in a slogan that appears on each bottle, “Don’t drink like an idiot. Drink with commitment.” The slogan was softened for English-speaking drinkers by Mecca Cola’s marketing experts to read, “Be engaged, drink.” Purchasers of the product are reminded that 10 percent of the profits go to Palestinian causes, although Mathlouthi is reticent about specifying the names of the organizations he supports. “I’m giving the choice between” Coke, “which is a symbol that is even stronger than McDonald’s, and another one that combats it,” he told the center-right daily Le Figaro. “My targets are American imperialism and criminal Zionism.” Similar beliefs can also be found in his other major business, a Paris-based radio station, Radio Mediterranean, which broadcasts to France’s large North African community. On the station, Mathlouthi treats his listeners to attacks against Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, whom he brands “the war criminal.” For Mathlouthi, “Zionism is a racist anti-Arab ideology” and Yasser Arafat and the PLO have committed a grave error by accepting the existence of the State of Israel. He and Arafat “are not fighting for the same Palestine,” Mathlouthi told the leading daily newspaper Le Monde in a recent interview. They may not even be fighting for the same cola since the better-known U.S. brand has been one of the largest private employers in the Palestinian Authority, producing the drink in a Ramallah factory. Mecca Cola has been distributed in 22 countries. Mathlouthi has orders for another 16 million bottles and hopes to reach more than a quarter of a billion by the end of the year. Already on the streets in eight European countries and as far afield as Venezuela and Australia, Mecca Cola is soon to hit the United States after a supplier was lined up in California. Mathlouthi says he hopes that Mecca Cola sales will help him launch another project — a Europe-based TV channel mirroring the Qatar-based Al-Jazeera, but broadcasting in English and French as well as Arabic. For that, though, Mathlouthi is looking to cross the English Channel and run the network from London because, he says, “It’s impossible to do it in France, where the decision makers have strong Zionist links.” Last year, he founded the National Observatory Against Racism and Anti-Semitism Toward Arabs and Muslims. The groups stated goals include “fighting Zionist politicians and Zionists at the center of power” in France. Mathlouthi was also behind the formation of a political party, the Party for a Pluralistic France, which he claims helped defeat Lionel Jospin in last April’s presidential elections. During last year’s campaign, Mathlouthi appeared on a number of Arabic satellite channels and tried to persuade Arab voters in France to punish Jospin, who had referred to Hezbollah forces in Lebanon as a terrorist group. According to Mathlouthi, Jospin’s Socialist Party also had treated France’s North African community as being “in its electoral pocket,” while simultaneously offering little on the Palestinian question. So far, Mecca Cola has been enormously successful in areas of France with large North African populations. It is primarily stocked by local Muslim-owned shops rather than the large supermarket chains that dominate France’s retail food trade. And now, with anti-Americanism rampant in France on the eve of a possible U.S.-led war against Iraq, Mathlouthi is finding increasing numbers of people willing to buy his anti-imperialist alternative to Coke. Not that Mecca Cola is without its critics even among French Muslims, some of whom object to the holiest city of Islam being used to market a brand of cola.

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