Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan made the case for “Islam and democracy” Thursday in Tunisia, where moderate Islamists modelled on his own party are tipped to win landmark October polls.
On a visit to the country where the “Arab Spring” began, Erdogan also produced the kind of trademark warning to Israel that has earned him hero status across the region.
“Islam and democracy are not contradictory. A Muslim can run a state very successfully,” said the 57-year-old after a meeting with his Tunisian counterpart Beji Caid Essebsi.
“The success of the electoral process in Tunisia will show the world that democracy and Islam can go together,” he added.
After ousting Zine el Abidine Ben Ali, one of the world’s most entrenched dictators, Tunisians are due to pick a constituent assembly in October 23 elections that pollsters predict will be won by the Ennahda (Renaissance) party.
Rached Ghannouchi’s party is a moderate Islamist movement which was fiercely repressed under Ben Ali’s 23-year rule and claims inspiration from Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP).
Secular Tunisians and intellectuals have expressed fears that an Ennahda election victory could set back religious freedom and women’s rights, despite Ghannouchi’s assurances.
“Turkey is 99 percent Muslim yet it is a democratic secular state where all religions are equal,” Erdogan said. “A Muslim, a Christian and a Jew are equal in a secular state.”
Analyst Faycal Cherif argued that Erdogan’s thinly-veiled support for Ghannouchi was a huge boost for Ennahda.
“Turkey is a heavyweight. It cannot be completely innocent for Erdogan to visit Tunisia with elections just a month away. He is sending a reassuring message to public opinion: do not fear Ennahda,” Cherif said.
Following afternoon meetings with officials from the main political parties, including Ennahda, Samir Dilou from the movement told AFP: “We spoke about what’s happening in Tunisia, and the elections.”
“The Turkish prime minister is an intelligent person and is careful not to interfere in Tunisia’s political life.
“We ourselves wouldn’t allow it,” said Dilou.
Erdogan has previously stated: “We respect the Tunisians’ choice and whichever party is elected, we will have a good relationship with them.”
Ankara was one of the first powers to support the protest movement by Tunisian youths demanding jobs and regime change and Turkey’s foreign minister was among the first top officials to visit after Ben Ali’s January ouster.
Among the constituent assembly’s tasks will be the drafting of a new constitution for Tunisia, where the outcome of the revolution is being closely scrutinised by other Arab countries and the rest of the world.
After the rapturous welcome he received on the first leg of his Arab Spring tour in Cairo that confirmed his rising regional status, Erdogan took yet another swipe at Israel when he spoke after his meeting with Essebsi.
“Israel will no longer be able to do what it wants in the Mediterranean and you’ll be seeing Turkish warships in this sea,” Erdogan said.
He reiterated his insistence on an Israeli apology for last year’s raid on a Gaza-bound aid flotilla that left nine pro-Palestinian activists dead, all of them Turks or of Turkish origin.
“Relations with Israel cannot normalise if Israel does not apologise over the flotilla raid, compensate the martyrs’ families and lift the blockade of Gaza,” Erdogan said.
Accompanied by a delegation of ministers and businessmen, Erdogan arrived late Wednesday at Tunis international airport, where hundreds of people waving Turkish and Palestinian flags had gathered.
Erdogan’s popularity in the Arab world has stemmed mainly from his strong confrontations with Israel, at a time when regional leaders were seen by their people as impotent when it comes to the Jewish state and the West.
On the previous stage of his tour, Erdogan visited Egypt, where some drew comparisons with the late Gamal Abdel Nasser, whose pan-Arabism and defiance of foreign powers made him a regional hero in the 1950s.
He has also become a champion of the Palestinian cause, which is entering a crucial phase with the Palestinian Authority’s plan to take a further step towards statehood by seeking UN membership later this month.
In a keynote address to the Arab League in Cairo on Wednesday, Erdogan argued that supporting the Palestinian bid was an obligation.
Erdogan is due in Libya on Friday for the final leg of his tour.