Egypt: Morsi's speech straddles several fences but is geared mostly to the home audience
Sep 28, 2012Posted by Gregory Aftandilian
Egyptian President Mohammad Morsi used his September 26 UN speech to lay out several positions that tried to show that he is an independent political figure, not beholden to the United States, but his positions did not signal any radical break from the past. Concerning the controversial, anti-Islam film, he tried to show he was the defender of the faith and. while condemning the anti-American violence that ensued, he also distanced himself from President Obama's explanations of free speech. Although the latter probably did not go down well in U.S. policy circles, his targeted audience in this instance was the fundamentalist constituency back home.
Morsi, as the first president in modern Egyptian history from the once-banned Muslim Brotherhood, wanted to use his speech to the UN General Assembly to demonstrate that Egypt is under new management. He underscored that Egypt is now free from "the contradictions of the bygone era," meaning the Mubarak regime, and would base its policies on "well-established values" and its "Arab and Islamic spheres."
On the longstanding Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Morsi reiterated the standard Arab position in support of Palestinian rights and independent statehood. Although he used some terms that are usually associated with Arab intellectuals in their criticisms of Israel--such as "colonization" and "alteration in the identity of Occupied Jerusalem"--as opposed to the more nuanced criticisms that were usually applied during the Mubarak regime, he reassured the international community (and by implication, the United States and Israel), that Egypt would continue to adhere to the "international agreements" that it has signed, meaning the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty. Morsi did not mention Israel by name, and that omission was probably deliberate, but his position on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was not significantly different than that of the previous regime.
On Syria, Morsi stuck to the consensus among the Sunni Muslim countries that the bloodshed must be stopped and that the Syrian people must be given the opportunity to "choose freely the regime that best represents them." He underscored his support for UN special representative Al-Ibrahimi's mission to find a solution to the crisis, and said Egypt would remain involved in this endeavor because of its place in the Arab and Islamic worlds.
He also emphasized Egypt's African identity and suggested that Egypt would to be active in helping to solve problems near it, such as the Sudanese and Somali crises. He called on the international community to resolve the problems between Sudan and South Sudan, and emphasized that Khartoum "has not received the support it deserves." Although this position differed somewhat from the Mubarak regime, which had a troubled relationship with Sudanese regime, Morsi did not appear to shift Egypt's position on Sudan in any dramatic fashion.
On the issue of nuclear weapons in the Middle East, Morsi struck very familiar chords, reiterating Egypt's position that the region should be free of weapons of mass destruction, something that former Egyptian foreign minister, Amre Moussa, spoke about in the 1990s. In this way, he tried to address several concerns--the Arab states' worries about Iran's nuclear program and what they see as the international community giving Israel a free pass on the issue, while reassuring Washington that Egypt is not in favor of Iran developing a nuclear weapon or of a nuclear arms race in the region.
Morsi's assessment of the fallout from the anti-Islam film was likely the most controversial part of his speech in the eyes of U.S. officials. After describing the trend of what he called "Islamophobia," he then indirectly referred to the film by stating that the "obscenities recently released as part of an organized campaign against Islamic sanctities is unacceptable and requires a firm stand...Egypt respects freedom of expression. One that is not used to incite hatred against anyone. One that is not directed towards one specific religion or culture...Not the freedom of expression that deepens ignorance and disregards others." This position was a direct response to President Obama's UN speech the day before in which the U.S. president told the international body that the protection of free speech is enshrined in the U.S. Constitution, and that even though it protects highly offensive views, any effort to restrict speech can lead us down a dangerous, slippery slope. It seems that Morsi wanted to make a cultural argument against the U.S. position to appeal to Islamist factions at home and within the broader Arab world, saying, in essence, that whatever U.S. arguments are made to protect free speech, the denigration of Islam is against our laws and values and will remain so. Morsi could have argued otherwise, saying that he respects the fact that a U.S. president cannot stop an offensive film from being made in the United States, but he probably calculated that such a stance would cost him support among fundamentalist supporters, especially when Egypt's new parliamentary elections are only a few months away. Nonetheless, Morsi did not want to push this argument too far, especially at a time when he needs U.S. support to help Egypt''s troubled economy. Hence, he made sure he added the sentence in his speech: "we also stand firmly against the use of violence in expressing objection to these obscenities," as a way of mollifying his U.S. critics.
The views expressed in this blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of the Center for National Policy.
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