CAIRO // Rioting continued in Tunis for a second day yesterday as police clashed with hundreds of Salafists incensed by "heretical" images at an art festival.
Tear gas was used to disperse crowds and 165 people were arrested as riots that began at the Printemps des Arts festival in the upmarket La Marsa suburb spread to other parts of Tunis.
Tunisian television showed streets littered with tear-gas canisters, burnt tyres, road blocks and graffiti condemning heretics.
According to state media, four artworks were defaced on Sunday at the controversial exhibition, which opened this month and featured work that highlighted sensitive issues, including Islamist influence in Tunisia and the role of women in society.
Those arrested will be charged under the 2003 anti-terror law, ministry official Mohamed Fadhel Saihi told reporters.
Salafists denied involvement in the rampage that injured 65 policemen and called for a protest after this week's Friday prayers.
Nourredine Bhiri, the justice minister, called the violence and the deliberate damage a "terrorist act", telling Tunisian radio that the perpetrators were "isolated in society'.
In the upheaval that followed the fall of Zine Al Abidine Ben Ali last year, liberal and conservative attitudes have jostled for cultural and political dominance, with one television station fined heavily last month for screening the film Persepolis, which was found to be blasphemous because it depicts God.
"This is a problem of identity after the revolution," said Asma Nouira, a political-science professor in Tunis. "A lot of young people are following the Salafis – and some other Salafis were in jail or outside the country and now they are back."
The relationship between the ruling moderate Islamist Ennahda party and more extreme groups is unclear, Professor Nouira added.
"People in the government say we will apply laws and take positions against these people, but they don't stop them. They say one thing and do another," she said.
The rioting comes at a time of heightened tension between secularists and both moderate and extreme Islamists in the country, whose government is in the process of writing a post-revolutionary constitution.
Ayman Al Zawahiri, Al Qaeda's leader, singled out Tunisia in statement posted on militant websites Sunday, calling on his followers in the country to stand against Ennahda, who hold sway after elections last year.
Mr Al Zawahiri said Ennahda favours "an Islam accepted by the US State Department, the EU and the sheikdoms of the Gulf, an Islam that accepts gambling clubs and nude beaches", according to reports of an audio recording posted on forums.
He criticised Ennahda for deciding that Islamic law would not be used to govern the country, telling his supporters to "rise up to support your Sharia".
Interior Minister Ali Larayedh said yesterday he expected rioting to continue in the coming days and said some of the violence may have been inspired by Al Qaeda.
"The protests are a reaction to the exhibition but maybe also to (Ayman) al-Zawahri's recent comments," he told parliament.
"It's the first time that the Al Qaeda leadership put out a statement specifically dealing with Tunisia so this is pretty monumental," said Aaron Zelin, the Richard Borrow Fellow at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, and an expert in Islamist movements.
Mr Zelin said that the extremist group sees Tunisia as a key battleground between moderate and radical Islam and is trying to tilt the balance in its favour.
"A lot of people will say – look what's happening in Tunisia and use it as a model," Mr Zelin said, pointing out that while the moderate Ennahda is influential in parliament, there was a conference of thousands of Islamists in the town of Kairouan last month, at which a prominent radical Abu Ayyad Al Tunisi called for a more Islamic Tunisia.
A spokesman for Ennahda, however, said that far from being threatened by the statement, members of the party were delighted that Al Qaeda had singled them out as a moderate grouping, distinct from militant Islamists.
"This really gave us a boost in terms of our morale," said Seyyed Ferjani. "Al Qaeda feels threatened by the project of human rights, democracy, how to reconcile Islam with democracy and how to look to the West as a partner and not as an enemy."
*with additional files from Agence-France Presse and Reuters