A reference by an Islamist politician to a form of government from Islam's history has stirred a political controversy in Tunisia shortly after an election won by his party.
The victory by Ennahda, a moderate Islamist party once repressed by the country's dictatorship, has left many members of the secular elite carefully scrutinizing it for any suggestions they might impose a conservative, religious agenda.
The party's win and future performance is being closely watched around the region where other religious parties are poised to compete in elections.
On Sunday, the party's campaign manager, Hamadi Jebali, and expected candidate for prime minister, suggested the country was entering the "sixth Caliphate," a reference to the first Islamic empire ruled by caliphs that were supreme in religious and temporal affairs.
"My brothers, you are living during a historic moment, a divine moment, a new stage of civilization, God willing, in the sixth Caliphate _ a great responsibility awaits," he told supporters in the city of Sousse, 100 miles (150 kilometers) southeast of the capital.
Ultraconservative Islamic movements _ of the kind Ennahda has expressly said it is not aligned to _ often invoke the Caliphate as the ideal form of government for the Muslim people.
Ennahda won more than 40 percent of the vote in Oct. 25 elections for a constituent assembly, giving the party the decisive voice in writing the country's new constitution and appointing the interim government.
Its critics pounced on the statements as the proof of the party's real conservative agenda for a country known for its Western outlook and progressive legislation for women.
"After that, how can we believe those that assure us, day and night that the Ennahda movement will not change the model of Tunisian society," asked the daily Le Maghreb in an article showing a be-turbaned Jebali under the caption, "the sixth caliph."
The left of center Ettakatol (forum) Party, which was set to form a coalition with Ennahda, on Wednesday suspended talks with the party, awaiting clarification of its position.
For its part, Ennahda maintains the comments were taken out of context, explaining that for them "the Caliphate represented principles of Tunisia's political patrimony and civilization, including justice, sincerity, liberty and loyalty," a statement on the party's website said.
The statement also reaffirmed their oft-repeated commitment to democratic and republican values.
Throughout the campaign Ennahda was careful to present itself as in tune both with Tunisia's Arab and Islamic heritage, as well as its more recent secular and European-influenced traditions.
Its opponents, most of whom did poorly in the elections, accuse the party of double speaking and wanting to pull the country back into the Middle Ages.
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