Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan angered Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood Wednesday with a call to “respect all religions.”
Speaking on an Egyptian television program, Erdogan told viewers that “a secular state does not mean that the people are atheists – it means respect for all religions, and each individual has the freedom to practice his own religion.”
"Do not be wary of secularism. I hope there will be a secular state in Egypt," he said, according to the Al Masry Al Youm Egyptian newspaper.
“Ninety-nine percent of the population in Turkey are Muslims,” explained Erdogan on the private Egyptian Dream satellite television channel in an interview before heading for Cairo for his two-day visit. “There are Christians, Jews and minorities, but the state treats them equally and this is recognized by Islam and has been true throughout Islamic history.”
Muslim Brotherhood spokesman Dr. Mahmoud Ghuzlan issued a statement saying it would be impossible to apply the Turkish political reality in Egypt, and accused Erdogan of meddling in Egyptian internal affairs.
The regime of former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, which was not by any means Islamist or religious in nature, frequently harassed the country's Coptic Christian minority, and the very few Jews who remain.
Once toppled, "pro-democracy" protesters and members of the transitional government called for a "new beginning" for the country's overwhelming Muslim majority and 10 percent Coptic minority. However, such sentiments were quickly forgotten and internecine clashes rapidly resumed, as the once-banned Muslim Brotherhood strengthened its political standing. Israel's embassy in Cairo was attacked last week by hundreds of violent protesters who broke into the building, threatening the lives of the staff who remained. Six security guards had to be evacuated by Egyptian commandos.
Essam el-Erian, once jailed under Mubarak and now deputy leader of the Freedom and Justice party sponsored by the Muslim Brotherhood, said in a statement, “We welcome Turkey and we welcome Erdogan as a prominent leader. But we do not think that he or his country alone should be leading the region or drawing up its future.”
Erian nevertheless praised Erdogan's political success in building a strong economy and support Arab causes, notably that of the Palestinian Authority.
Erdogan was scheduled to meet with the leadership of the Muslim Brotherhood on Wednesday.