Tunisian Riots Follow al-Qaeda Chief Zawahiri’s Exhortation to Muslims to ‘Rise Up’

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Rocks and debris litter a street in Sijouni near Tunis, scene of overnight riots on Tuesday, May 12, 2012. (AP Photo/Amine Landoulsi)

(CNSNews.com) – Riots in Tunisia on Monday and Tuesday were attributed to “un-Islamic” art exhibits, but also came just a day after al-Qaeda chief Ayman al-Zawahari  sent a message urging Tunisian Muslims to “rise up” in defense of Islamic law (shari’a).

The terrorist leader accused the Islamist party that heads Tunisia’s post-revolutionary government, Ennahda (Renaissance), of betraying Islam by not insisting that a new national constitution being drafted imposes shari’a.

The government imposed a curfew overnight Tuesday in eight regions, after rioters identified as Salafists protested violently in Tunis and elsewhere, targeting offices of secular political parties, a labor federation and other buildings with rocks and petrol bombs, clashing with police and setting tires alight.

The U.S. Embassy warned Americans to avoid all demonstrations, “as even peaceful ones can quickly become unruly, and a foreigner could become a target of harassment or worse.”

Addressing a press conference, Interior Ministry spokesman Khaled Tarrouche called the rioting “terrorist acts” and warned that live ammunition may be used against rioters if the situation worsened.

In a briefing to parliament, Interior Minister Ali Larayedh accused Salafists of carrying out attacks in “blatant disregard for the law.” He reported more than 160 arrests and said 65 security force members had been hurt, telling lawmakers the upheavals would likely continue for several days.

Larayedh acknowledged that some of the violence may have been provoked by Zawahiri’s statement. He also blamed “criminals” and elements linked to the ousted regime of former president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.

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“In spite of current events, and the individuals who are jeopardizing our national security, we will do our best to maintain security,” he said.

But Ennahda leader Rached Ghannouchi told state television the violence had nothing to do with Zawahiri’s message.

“I don’t think we have al-Qaeda in Tunisia,” Tunisia Live, an independent English-language news service, quoted him as saying.

Ghannouchi, who returned to Tunisia after more than 20 years in exile following the ousting of Ben Ali, conceded that there was some “extremism” within the Salafist movement but predicted that it would disappear in time.

Ennahda last October won a plurality of the seats when Tunisians elected an assembly mandated to draft the new constitution.

As the country that launched the so-called “Arab spring” by toppling the Ben Ali regime, Tunisia is seen as setting the standard for nascent democracies in the region.

During a visit last February Secretary of State Hillary Clinton appealed to those in power to demonstrate that there is “no contradiction” between Islamist politics and democracy, and voiced optimism afterwards, saying she was encouraged by what she saw and heard.

The new constitution is still four months away, but last week, a draft of its preamble was released. It says the new constitution will be based on the principle that Tunisia’s national identity is “Arab-Muslim,” while also stating that Tunisia will be a “participatory, democratic republic,” with human rights respected.

Zawahiri’s reaction came in an audio message posted on Islamist websites Sunday, accusing Ennahda of “violating” the Qur’an by agreeing to a constitution not solely based on shari’a.

The ruling party’s form of Islam, the message said, “is that of the State Department, the European Union” and the Arab Gulf states.

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Zawahari said moderate Islam was like an army that is not interested in fighting.

“Rise up to support your shari’a and incite the people for a popular uprising,” he declared.

Tunisian Salafists have been flexing their muscles for some time, targeting bars and stores that sell alcohol and also attacking a police station in the town of Jendouba last month.

The rioting that erupted on Monday night and continued Tuesday – the country’s most serious violence since the Ben Ali revolt – came after a group of Salafists stormed an art exhibition in a Tunis suburb and defaced exhibits they said insulted Islam.

Tunisian reports said the most controversial piece featured the word “allah,” written in dead flies.

Before the riots broke out, Ennahda had issued a statement condemning what it called insults against religion but also urging its supporters to react calmly.

On Tuesday, the government said the art exhibition would be closed immediately and legal action taken against organizers for allowing artwork offensive to Islam to be displayed.

The violation of sacred symbols of Islam would be punished under the law, Religious Affairs Minister Nourredine Khadmi told a press conference.

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