TUNIS - The leader of Tunisia's ruling Islamist party on Wednesday dismissed suggestions that recent unrest was the result of a call to rise up by Al-Qaeda supremo Ayman al-Zawahiri.
"Ayman al-Zawahiri has no influence in Tunisia. This man is a disaster for Islam and for Muslims," Ennahda leader Rached Ghannouchi told reporters.
"Al-Qaeda's project is one of destruction and civil war," he said, citing the Iraqi, Afghan and Somali examples. "We see no link between the Salafists in Tunisia and Al-Qaeda."
Violence broke out across the country after men identified as following the ultra-conservative Salafist brand of Islam destroyed paintings at a Tunis exhibition they deemed "blasphemous".
The incident took place on Sunday and riots pitting Salafist demonstrators against police broke out in several towns on Monday and Tuesday, leaving one dead and dozens wounded.
The authorities arrested 165 people and imposed a nighttime curfew on several regions in Tunisia, vowing to crack down on rioters.
Tunisia's Salafist movement, which has flexed its muscle since the fall of longtime president Zine el Abidine Ben Ali in January last year, denied any involvement in the violence.
Egyptian-born Zawahiri, who took over as Al-Qaeda's top leader last year after the death of Osama bin Laden urged Tunisians to demand the full implementation of Islamic law in an audio message posted on Islamist websites Sunday.
"O, honest and free Tunisians. The masks have dropped. Rise up to support your sharia," he said. "Call for a popular campaign advocating support for sharia and Islam and the rule of the Koran."
Zawahiri criticised Ghannouchi's Ennahda (Renaissance) party, which won Tunisia's first post-revolutions polls in October and leads the current governing coalition, for failing to impose a more religious state.
"It is astonishing to find a leadership claiming to belong to Islam saying that it does not want to rule with it," he said.
Some secular groups and Ennahda critics have charged that the party is not as moderate as it claims and alleged that it was using Salafist groups to Islamise society.
Ghannouchi denied the claims and said that "the Salafists are not a homogeneous group. Only a minority advocates violence."