CAIRO (AP) — Turkey's prime minister presented his country as a model for an Arab world in turmoil, giving advice on everything from balancing secularism and Islam to challenging Israel during a high-profile visit to Egypt on Tuesday aimed at advancing his growing status as a regional leader.
Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan received a hero's welcome among Egyptians, impressed by his tough stance against Israel and searching for firm direction in a post-revolution period that has turned muddled and confused. His celebrity stood out in even greater contrast as the head of the Arab League admitted Tuesday that the pan-Arab body was "impotent" in the face of the Middle East's uprisings.
But the visit fueled a debate among Egyptians whether the Turkish model he touted — with an Islamic-based political party governing a secular democracy — was really applicable here.
Many are skeptical that Egypt's powerful Muslim Brotherhood, which often cites Erdogan's party as a model and is likely to gain significant power, can accept Turkish-style secularism.
A Brotherhood spokesman, Mahmoud Ghozlan, praised Erdogan as "a respectable leader who preserves the dignity of his country and who shares similar position with Israel." But he insisted Egyptians want an Islamic state.
"In Turkey, when a man finds a woman in bed with another man, he can't punish her by law because it is permitted there. It means that Turkey ... violates Islamic Shariah law," he told The Associated Press.
Erdogan has sought to leverage the Arab uprisings into greater influence for Turkey in a region where, as the seat of the Ottoman empire, it once ruled for centuries. He has grown critical of the regime in Syria, with which Turkey has close ties, for its bloody crackdown on protesters. The fall of Hosni Mubarak has opened the way for Turkey to get closer to Egypt, and Erdogan arrived with a host of officials to sign cooperation deals. On his tour, he will also visit Tunisia and Libya, where popular uprisings have ousted autocratic leaders.
Key to Erdogan's rising popularity has been his confrontation with Israel. Once an ally of the Jewish state, Erdogan suspended military ties with Israel and expelled top Israeli diplomats in protest over its refusal to apologize over deaths during a commando raid on a Turkish flotilla trying to break the blockade of the Gaza Strip last year. He said he had hoped to visit Gaza during his tour but "circumstances did not permit."
Brotherhood members rallied at the airport late Monday for the Turkish leader's arrival, cheering and hoisting a banner, reading "Egypt and Turkey together are one hand for the sake of the future. Erdogan is a hero." Big billboards lined up the airport road, showing Erdogan smiling with his hand on his heart.
Erdogan met Tuesday with Field Marshal Mohammed Hossein Tantawi, Egypt's military ruler, then addressed Arab foreign ministers at the Arab League. There he sought to embody a new regional policy for Israel to moderate its behavior.
"Israel must respect human rights and act as a normal country and then it will be liberated from its isolation," said Erdogan, interrupted several times by applause.
He backed recognition for a Palestinian state in a U.N. vote that the Palestinian leadership is pushing for this month, saying "this is not an option but a necessity."
In a later speech at Cairo's Opera House, he warned of increasing steps against Israel unless it compensates victims of the flotilla raid and lifts its remaining restrictions on Gaza. Israel "has lost a great chance, and ties have been lowered with Turkey, the region's biggest democracy."
Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor refused to comment on Erdogan's comments. Israel has defended its raid on the flotilla, saying its troops were defending themselves against passengers who attacked them as they boarded. Last week, Israel expressed regret for the loss of lives and said it was time for the two countries to restore their former ties.
As part of Erdogan's media blitz, he was interviewed on Egypt's most popular political talk show, "10 o'clock," where he defended the concept of secularism — a term tainted as "anti-Islamic" in the eyes of many Egyptians.
"To Egyptians who view secularism as removing religion from the state, or as an infidel state, I say you are mistaken," Erdogan said. "It means respect to all religions. ... If this is implemented, the entire society will live in safety."
"Turkish secularism respects atheists because in the end Turkey is a state that believes in the rule of law," he said.
Since Mubarak's fall on Feb. 11, Egypt has seen its revolution turn chaotic on multiple fronts. Anger at Israel burst into a riot last weekend outside the Israeli Embassy during which protesters broke in and threw documents into the street. There are growing worries over the power of the Brotherhood, which stands to gain in upcoming elections, and growing criticism of the military's muddled handling of the transition.
Amr Shobaki, a columnist in the independent daily Al-Masry Al-Youm, wrote that while Egypt can't copy Turkey, it should be "inspired" by its experience. "Erdogan doesn't call secularists extremists in Turkey," he said. "He hasn't called on Turkish women to put on the veil."
On Israel, "Turkey had the guts to take a real decision despite its consequences, like expelling the ambassador, but it didn't storm an embassy and throw its papers in the air."
But Nabil Abdel-Fattah, at the Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, said Egypt's Brotherhood won't follow the example of Erdogan's Justice and Development Party, which has avoided pushing a religious agenda to focus on building the economy.
"The Muslim Brotherhood is trying is to put on an Erdogan mask ... to reassure liberal sectors in Egyptian society," he said. "The Muslim Brotherhood opposes secularism and hates to hear Erdogan talking" of one.
Associated Press writer Aya Batrawy in Cairo contributed to this report.