Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi claimed the mantle of Middle East leadership as he took to the world stage at the United Nations. Cementing his place at the pivot point in the clash of cultures between the Islamic world and the West, he held out pledges of democracy and cooperation, but also assertively voiced Arab causes.
As he spoke to the UN General Assembly in an uncharismatic but confident style, the underlying message was clear: Here is a new kind of leader for a major Mideast nation and he expects to have clout. Election, he repeatedly implied, means that Egypt’s views, on Mideast peace or pre-emptive strikes, now carry the weight of democratic legitimacy.
Much of what Egypt’s new, elected leader said will be heartening to democratic nations that are watching closely. He reaffirmed commitment to international treaties and promised to co-operate with the world to promote democracy, the rule of law and human rights.
But Mr. Morsi, a former leading figure in the Muslim Brotherhood elected in June, also pressed for a Palestinian state, blasted Israel’s threats to strike Iran’s nuclear facilities and warned of the rise of Islamophobia.
In matter of a few hours Wednesday, the roll call of the annual week of speeches to the opening of the UN General Assembly symbolized dramatic change in the tumultuous region, with Mr. Morsi emerging as the face of the new Middle East.
The echoes of the messianic rant of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, in his last address to the UN as Iran’s president, had only dissipated minutes earlier from the chamber minutes when Mr. Morsi stood to take the podium – and put a different face on the Middle East. He underlined the symbolism of speaking to the UN as “the first Egyptian civilian president elected democratically and freely, following a great peaceful revolution hailed by the world.”
“This revolution,” he said, “established a genuine legitimacy.”
Outside Egypt, Mr. Morsi is being watched closely to see what course he will set with that new legitimacy. His country of 90 million has natural weight in the region. But Western nations, especially, have been unsure how to respond to an elected Islamist leader, even one seen as a moderate.
Ferry de Kerckhove, a former Canadian ambassador to Egypt, said that being an elected leader in a country traditionally at the centre of the Arab world lends weight to Mr. Morsi’s words – and that the West can expect more elected Islamist leaders in the region in the future. “We have no choice but to do business with him,” he said.
“He represents the legitimacy of a civilian but Islamist government,” said Mr. de Kerckhove. “But he could represent Islamist moderation, if he can get his own people under control.”
In one sense, Mr. Morsi sought to hold out a hand to the world – and the West. He described Egypt establishing a modern state that is “in tune with the present, is based on the rule of law, democracy and respect for human rights, and does not compromise the values firmly embedded in the souls of all Egyptians.”
On the world stage, he reiterated Egypt’s commitment to international treaties, including, he made clear, the country’s key accords with Israel.
When he spoke of Syria, he called for the opposition to unite without sectarianism and religious discrimination – or foreign intervention – and follow Egypt’s course to democracy.
Mr. Morsi mentioned the newly established quartet committee – an initiative by Egypt, Iran, Turkey and Saudi Arabia for a peace process in Syria. Though that plan irks the United States and many in the West because of Iran’s involvement, Mr. Morsi invited other nations to join.
He also delivered strong messages on the Mideast peace process and on Israel’s threats to strike Iran’s nuclear facilities. He was speaking, he said, for the “New Egypt” and “stemming from the will of its people as well as the legitimacy on which its regime is founded.”
He insisted that the first issues the world must work to solve is the “Palestinian cause” and he called for an immediate end to Israeli settlements, saying it was “shameful” that the free world accepts the denial of Palestinian independence.
And, as Israel delivers a thinly veiled warning it could soon strike Iran to stop it from developing nuclear weapons, Mr. Morsi warned that if the world accepts the principle of pre-emptive strikes it will lead to “the law of the jungle.” He took shots at Israel’s own nuclear arsenal, saying Egypt no longer tolerates any country outside the global non-proliferation treaty, “especially if this is coupled with irresponsible policies or arbitrary threats.”
And he warned of a rise of “Islamophobia,” as he addressed the anti-Muslim video that sparked violent protests in Egypt and elsewhere in the region, in which more than 50 were killed. Muslims, he said, face discrimination and “vicious campaigns against what they hold sacred.”
Like U.S. President Barack Obama in his own speech to the UN on Tuesday, Mr. Morsi declared the provocation unacceptable and insisted he’s against violence in expressing objection to insults like the video. But he also stressed limits to freedom of expression. “Egypt respects freedom of expression. One that is not used to incite hatred against anyone,” he said. “A freedom of expression that tackles extremism and violence, not the freedom of expression that deepens ignorance and disregards others.”
Mr. de Kerckhove said Mr. Morsi’s defence of Palestinians is what his own voters would expect, and in substance, no more than what Mr. Obama has said in the past. And his effort to appear moderate, stress civilian principles and law will appeal to the wide swath of Egyptian public opinion that supports secularism.
But Mr. de Kerckhove noted that the Egyptian President faces domestic pressures – to combine with liberals to improve the economy, on the one hand, and for his more moderate Muslim Brothers to not lose support to the more extremist Salafists.
Canadian diplomats stalked out, joining Israelis and Americans in a boycott of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad even before the controversial Iranian leader reached the podium to deliver his last speech to the United Nations General Assembly.
“We will not sit silently in our chairs and listen to Iran’s hateful, anti-Western, anti-Semitic views,” said Richard Roth, spokesman for Canadian Foreign Minister John Baird. Neither the minister, nor his boss, Prime Minister Stephen Harper, attended. Mr. Harper, unlike most world leaders, isn’t addressing the annual General Assembly conclave and Mr. Baird has been relegated to next week along with others from countries that opted not to send a head of government.
Mr. Ahmadinejad, who has dominated the spotlight this week with a whirlwind of media appearances, delivered another impassioned speech: He called for a new world order and denounced Israel, saying Iran faced threats from “the uncivilized Zionists [who] resort to military action against our great nation.”
Despite the Harper government’s decision to kick Iranian diplomats out of Ottawa and close the embassy in Tehran earlier this month, the Iranian President made no reference to Canada nor the walkout by the Canadian delegation.
In calling for sweeping reform of the United States, the Iranian leader echoes the views of many nations, including India, Brazil, and the many Muslim nations that contend the Security Council veto power reserved for the five victors of the Second World War – Britain, China, France, Russia and the United States – is out-of-date and unfair.
“The world is in need of a new order … in which everybody is equal before the law and in which there is no double standard,” Mr. Ahmadinejad said.
He also took a swipe at President Barack Obama and his Republican rival Mitt Romney, for spending “hundreds of millions on election campaigns” but failing to listen to the “will and views of the masses.”
- Paul Koring and Campbell Clark