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Thursday, August 30, 2012

Morsi makes his play for pan-Islam leadership at NAM

While Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi's presence at the Non-Aligned Movement summit in Tehran is troubling for the political legitimacy it gives Iran, he did not shy away from confronting his hosts in his speech.

For one thing, Morsi emphasized Syria, a topic that Iran's leaders have avoided at the conference.

There are reports that Syrian delegates walked out during his speech.

But there was a lot that he said that was interesting, as he seems to be pushing for Egypt to reclaim its spot as the leader of the Arab countries. His mix of praise and not-so-subtle digs at Iran are worth studying to understand his plan for Egypt:
At the beginning of his speech Morsi made his by now common Islamist reference, "May God's peace be upon his Prophet Mohamed."

He added, "And may the peace of God be on the holy family of the Prophet." This reference to the 'family of Prophet Mohamed' might have been designed to send a positive message to his predominantly Shia hosts who are said to have been offended by remarks he made during a July visit to Saudi Arabia, another Sunni power in the Middle East, which indicated a Sunni-Shia polarisation between Egypt and Saudi Arabia on one hand and Iran on the other.

Then Morsi went further and paid the most unusual tribute in a political speech at an international summit to the Sahaba (close associates) of Prophet Mohamed: Abu Bakr, Omar, Othman and Ali.

The reference to Ali, the most holy member of the Prophet Mohamed's family in the eyes of Shias, could have been perceived by Morsi's Shia audience in the conference hall as flattering had it not come after references to Abu Bakr, Omar and Othman, who are abhorred by Shias and whose role in early Muslim history is not even mentioned in the history books of Iranian schools.

A non-traditional reference was also made by Morsi when referring to Egypt's role in the launch of the NAM in the 1950s. "At the time Nasser was expressing the will of the people (of Egypt) to defy colonisation," Morsi said.

The fact that this first ever civilian, Islamist and freely elected Egyptian president, who comes from the ranks of the Muslim Brotherhood, who was an opponent of the Mubarak regime – despite short intervals of cooperation – makes a reference to Nasser is again something that goes beyond the predictable. However, the style of the reference is not necessarily free of all pejorative implications, at least to the ears of an average Nasser admirer.

The norm has been that Nasser is referred to in this context as "Leader Gamal Abdel-Nasser, one of the champions of the march against colonisation."

Beyond his references to Ali and Nasser, Morsi's speech included other non-traditional comments.

The president's references to the Palestinian cause broke away from the usual déjà vu statements about the right of Palestinians to statehood – and it certainly made no reference to the now notorious "two-state solution."

Instead, Morsi made some coherent statements about Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails and the inalienable rights of the Palestinian people – things that had almost completely dropped out of official Egyptian discourse on the Palestinian issue.

On Syria, Morsi's speech all but equated the Assad regime with the Israeli occupation of Palestine when he referred to "the struggle for freedom by the Palestinian and Syrian peoples."

Furthermore, Morsi said the Assad regime "had lost all legitimacy" and it was not enough to show sympathy towards the Syrian people, but the time had come to act upon this sympathy.

Morsi's statements on Syria certainly went way beyond the liking of his Iranian hosts who remain committed to the Assad regime, and caused the Syrian delegation to leave the conference hall.

Indeed, Iranian officials almost never speak of a "Syrian revolution" but of "unrest in Syria."

Morsi also went beyond the expected when he called the Iranian president "my dear brother" upon turning over the presidency of summit from Egypt to Iran. Interestingly, he called Iran "the sister Islamic republic of Iran."
It appears that Morsi is trying to implement the Muslim Brotherhood goal of consolidating all Islam into a single caliphate, and he is trying to include Shiites while making sure that the Sunnis - his Sunnis - are leading. Iran has roughly the same goal, of leading the entire unified Muslim world under its own umbrella.

Both of them have a shared interest in playing nice but also in slyly taking charge.

This speech proves that Morsi is no pushover, at least in this most basic of Muslim Brotherhood goals.