“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.
Morsi also said Egypt would argue forcefully for the rights of Palestinians and for an end to what he called illegal occupation of Arab lands, a reference to Israeli occupation of the West Bank. He said nothing about Egypt’s peace treaty with Israel, the basis for about $1.5 billion in annual U.S. aid.
The Egyptian president denounced Israel’s presumed nuclear weapons, a stockpile built outside the international arms control treaty. And in a further challenge
to Israel and its U.S. ally, Morsi warned against “irresponsible policies or arbitrary threats.” That was a reference to the looming possibility of a unilateral Israeli military strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities.
The United States opposes such a strike now, but it would almost certainly back Israel if it went ahead.
“The acceptance by the international community of the principle of preemptiveness, or the attempt to legitimize it,” Morsi said, “is itself a serious matter and must be firmly confronted to avoid the prevalence of the law of the jungle.”
Morsi, who was sworn in June 30, has previously said he would like to make changes to the 30-year-old peace treaty with Israel, but he has been careful not to suggest he would abandon it.
The Obama administration is working to help Egypt secure a badly needed loan from the International Monetary Fund, but talks on the aid package were delayed by the embassy protests this month. Morsi is stepping carefully to avoid alienating his Islamist constituency at home, while seeking to reassure the United States and other potential international investors.
His lengthy visit to the United States will not include a meeting with Obama. Although Morsi’s office had said a meeting was planned, the White House was cool to the idea in the middle of the presidential campaign.
Obama told an interviewer shortly after the Cairo attack that Egypt was not necessarily an ally. That remark hung over Morsi’s meeting Monday with Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, but U.S. officials later said the session was cordial and productive.
Morsi and his delegation made a point of stressing that the security of diplomatic installations was “Egypt’s duty,” said a senior U.S. official who wasn’t authorized to speak publicly about the private meeting and requested anonymity. Clinton assured Morsi of continued U.S. aid.
A senior State Department official, speaking on the condition that his name not be used because he was discussing diplomatic issues, said that the administration would not respond directly to Morsi’s comments. But the official underscored the Egyptian leader’s rejection of violence.
Both Egypt and the United States have a strong interest in keeping their long partnership intact. U.S. aid is vital to Egypt’s decrepit economy, and Egypt is a key Arab power broker and counterterrorism partner. Mubarak was seen as a bulwark against Islamic extremism, so the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood and more conservative Islamic political parties in Egypt alarmed some of Egypt’s international backers.