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Tunis (Reuters) - Tunisia's secularists said their fears about an Islamist takeover were being realized on Tuesday after a senior official in the moderate Islamist party which won last month's election invoked the revival of a caliphate, or Islamic state.
Footage posted on the Internet showed Hamadi Jbeli, the secretary-general of the Ennahda party, telling supporters that "We are in the sixth caliphate, God willing."
The caliphate was a system for governing Islamic empires based on sharia law. There were five caliphates under different dynasties until Turkey's founder Mustafa Kemal Ataturk abolished the last of them early last century.
The remarks by Jbeli -- his party's nominee to be the next prime minister -- complicated Ennahda's efforts to form a coalition government, leading one prospective partner to say it was partly suspending negotiations in protest.
Ennahda has reassured Tunisians it will not impose a Muslim moral code on society and will respect women's equality, but the comments by Jbeli were interpreted by secularists as evidence the party has a hidden agenda.
Khemais Ksila, a member of the executive committee of the Ettakatol party, which is in coalition talks with Ennahda, said the party was suspending its participation in two of the three committees which were working on a coalition deal.
"We do not accept this statement," he said. "We thought we were going to build a second republic with our partner, not a sixth caliphate."
Ennahda won Tunisia's first democratic election after a revolution in January which ousted autocratic leader Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali and inspired the "Arab Spring" uprisings.
The party's actions are being scrutinized closely in Egypt and Libya, where Islamists who until now have been banned from political life are also gaining in influence after revolutions forced out entrenched rulers.
The Internet footage showed Jbeli, a political prisoner under Ben Ali, telling supporters: "My brothers, you are at a historic moment ... in a new cycle of civilization, God willing ... We are in sixth caliphate, God willing."
The use of the term caliphate in Arab politics is highly sensitive because it is a concept promoted by groups at the radical end of the Islamist spectrum, such as Hizb-ut-Tahrir, which is banned in many countries.
Moderate Islamist movements such as Ennahda or Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood generally steer clear of the term because of these associations.
An Ennahda official said that the party's opponents were deliberately misreading what Jbeli had said.
"Jbeli was intending to speak about good governance and a break with corruption ... not the establishment of an Islamic regime," Faouzi Kamoun, the director of Jbeli's office, told Reuters.
"We are a civil party ... This is indisputable. But a section of the elite is seeking to distract people from the main issues," he said.
That did not reassure secularists, who have traditionally dominated Tunisia's ruling classes and now think their freedoms will be eroded by the Islamists.
Ennahda is the first Islamist party to win power in the Arab world since Hamas won an election in the Palestinian Territories in 2006.
"This speech is very dangerous," Said Issam Chebbi, a leading member of the secularist PDP party, told Reuters. "This is what we feared."
The secularist Maghreb newspaper mocked Jbeli with a photo montage on its front page of the Ennahda official dressed as a traditional Arab emir, or leader, and the headline: "Sixth Caliph Hamadi Jbeli."
An Internet user called Imen Kaouel posted a comment underneath an online video of Jbeli's speech saying: "We are starting to discover the true face of Ennahda."
Ennahda is led by Rachid Ghannouchi, an Islamic scholar who spent 22 years in exile in London. Western diplomats say his moderate approach is sincere, but that some in the party's rank and file may want to take it down a more hardline path.
In last month's election, Ennahda emerged the biggest party in an assembly which will choose a new caretaker government, rewrite the constitution and schedule fresh elections.
It did not have a majority, forcing it into coalition talks with two smaller, secularist parties, Ettakatol and the Congress for the Republic (CPR).
Ettakatol official Ksila said the suspension was in protest at Jbeli's comments, and also because the CPR was trying to railroad through the selection of its leader, Moncef Marzouki, as Tunisia's new president, a largely ceremonial post.
Ettakatol had indicated it wanted its leader, Mustafa Ben Jaafar, to get the job.
The row was the first public sign of friction between the would-be coalition partners.
Editing by Christian Lowe and Diana Abdallah