Erdogan tells Tunisians that Islam and democracy can work

Turkish leader¿s visit to Tunisia before election seen as boost for moderate Islamist Ennahda (Renaissance) party.

Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan tours the souk market in Tunis yesterday as part of a two-day visit to Tunisia. Hamine Landoulsi / AP Photo
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TUNIS // Recep Tayyip Erdogan made the case for "Islam and democracy" yesterday 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, the Turkish prime minister 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 Mr Erdogan 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."

After they ousted Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, once seen as one of the world's most entrenched dictators, Tunisians are to pick a constituent assembly in elections on October 23 that pollsters predict will be won by the Ennahda party, chaired by the Islamist leader Rached Ghannouchi.

Mr Ghannouchi's Ennahda (Renaissance) party is a moderate Islamist movement that was repressed under Ben Ali's 23-year rule and claims inspiration from Mr Erdogan's Justice and Development Party.

Secular Tunisians and intellectuals have expressed fears that an Ennahda election victory could set back religious freedom and women's rights, despite Mr Ghannouchi's assurances.

Mr Erdogan's thinly veiled support for Mr Ghannouchi was a major boost for Ennahda, the analyst Faycal Cherif said. "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," Mr Cherif said.

After the rapturous welcome he received on the first leg of his "Arab Spring tour" in Cairo confirmed his rising regional status, Mr Erdogan took yet another swipe at Israel when he spoke after meeting Mr 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."

He reiterated his insistence on an Israeli apology for last year's raid on a Gaza-bound aid flotilla that left nine 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,"he said.