“We reject this. We cannot accept it,” Morsi said, his voice thin with anger. “We will not allow anyone to do this by word or deed.”
In an address before the U.N. General Assembly that marked his debut as an international statesman, Egypt’s first democratically elected president presented an unapologetically Islamic view of world events and Egypt’s role in them. He said outrage over insults to Islam does not justify violence but said nothing directly about the attack two weeks ago on the U.S. Embassy in Cairo.
And his assertion that the YouTube video was part of an organized assault risked undermining U.S. attempts to disavow it, although Morsi did not explain who he thought was behind the campaign.
“Egypt respects freedom of expression,” said Morsi, who was the candidate of the Muslim Brotherhood movement once banned by the U.S.-backed secular dictatorship of Hosni Mubarak. But “not a freedom of expression that targets a specific religion or a specific culture.”
Morsi’s stance underlined the challenges facing the Obama administration as it attempts to recalibrate the U.S. relationship not only with Egypt but also with other countries in the Middle East and North Africa roiled by the Arab Spring. The reaction to the YouTube video that denigrated Islam has proven to be a critical flash point.
With the U.S. presidential election approaching, Republican candidate Mitt Romney has tried to turn the events in the Middle East and North Africa into a referendum on what he says is Obama’s weakness. This week, Romney said Morsi’s election in Egypt was part of a pattern of events that called for tougher leadership from the United States.
The Obama administration was angered by Morsi’s initially slow response to the Sept. 11 attack on the embassy in Cairo, which ended with protesters vandalizing the compound and tearing down the U.S. flag. Obama placed an unusual late-night phone call to Morsi to complain, but U.S. officials said the Egyptian leader has since moved quickly to protect U.S. installations in Egypt.
In his address, Morsi never mentioned the United States, Egypt’s largest foreign benefactor, but much of his message appeared aimed at setting boundaries for his country’s new relationship with the West.
He said Egypt would not back away from a diplomatic partnership with Iran to end the civil war in Syria — a partnership that is viewed with deep skepticism by Washington because of Iran’s alleged role in funding and arming the repressive Syrian regime.