Egypt’s most powerful Islamist group warned Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Wednesday that his country should not seek to dominate the Middle East despite his enthusiastic welcome at the start of a regional tour.

After his widely praised call for democracy in the Arab world, Erdogan was given a more reserved reception by officials of the Muslim Brotherhood, whose old guard was put off by the Turkish leader’s calls for Egypt to adopt a secular constitution.

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Appearing on Egyptian television, Erdogan said, “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.”

“Ninety-nine percent of the population in Turkey are Muslims. There are Christians, Jews and minorities, but the state treats them equally. This is recognized by Islam and has been true throughout Islamic history,” he said.

Anat Lapidot-Firilla – director of the Forum for the Study of Turkey at The Van Leer Jerusalem Institute – said Erdogan’s comments must be put in their proper context. “He can’t speak against secularism, because it’s built into the Turkish constitution,” said Lapidot- Firilla, who also teaches at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

Second, when he speaks of a secular state he’s primarily talking about a pluralistic one – one that allows everyone to live within the same structure. It doesn’t mean a state devoid of all signs of religion. In his eyes, the Kemalist concept of secularization was radical and extreme – a religion in its own right.”

Essam el-Erian, deputy leader of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice party said in response to Erdogan’s remarks, “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.”

He added: “Arab states do not need outside projects ... This has to come from the new internal systems of the Arab countries which after the revolutions ... will be democratic ones,” Erian said, confirming that Erdogan had met with Freedom and Justice representatives.

Lapidot-Firilla said the Turkish leader may have let the raucous reception he received Tuesday go to his head. “I think he neither understands the Arab world nor the limits of his own power. If he thought he could come to the Arab world and say, ‘We know what’s best for you,’ then he’s naive,” she said.

“His supporters come from the Islamic movements including the Muslim Brotherhood, so the moment he started talking about secularism, it was all over.”

Erdogan’s party, with its Islamist roots and election success, has become a model for younger elements of the Brotherhood and other Islamic groups as they prepare for the first free vote since Hosni Mubarak’s 30-year rule was ended in February.

The Turkish premier has won plaudits from many Arabs for his belligerent line against Israel and support of the Palestinians.

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“He has successfully invested in the Arab and Muslim world’s central case, which is the Palestinian case,” the Brotherhood’s Erian said.

“When it comes to Israel, he has a lot of criticism for the State of Israel and for Zionism, but he himself isn’t talking about Israel’s destruction.

Rather, he talks about a two-state solution,” Lapidot-Firilla said. “He believes that over time Israel won’t survive unless it accepts the guardianship of the regional hegemon – namely, Turkey ... He tends to look at the peoples of the entire area – both Israel and the Palestinians – as not quite mature. There’s something very paternalistic in his speech, but also angry, when he talks about Israel as the region’s ‘spoiled child.’” A senior Turkish Foreign Ministry official said Erdogan had only offered Egypt help if requested. “We are not saying we will come and teach you what to do, we are saying we can help if you want,” the official said.

Egyptian Prime Minister Essam Sharaf said they sought to boost annual trade between the two states to $5 billion from $3 billion, as well as to increase Turkish investment in Egypt to $5 billion from $1.5 billion in the future.

On Tuesday, Erdogan urged the United States not to block a plan by Palestinians to seek recognition for a statehood at the United Nations, and praised the overthrow of Arab autocrats across the region.

“The freedom message spreading from Tahrir Square has become a light of hope for all the oppressed through Tripoli, Damascus and Sanaa,” Erdogan said, receiving several standing ovations. “Democracy and freedom is as basic a right as bread and water for you, my brothers.”

Reuters contributed to this report.

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