AL-ARISH, Egypt — Among the rock-star lineup of world leaders addressing the United Nations General Assembly this week, a speech by newly-elected Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi might be one of the most highly-anticipated.
Morsi, who has pursued a bold foreign policy in his first months in office, is expected to use the opportunity to further restore Egypt’s status as a global player and to distance himself from the pro-US policies of his predecessor.
The trip will also mark Morsi’s first official visit to the United States, though he will not meet with US President Barack Obama.
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“It is a historical moment for us,” said Ibrahim Al Iraqi, a leader of the Muslim Brotherhood organization that engineered Morsi’s presidential win in June. “He will change the way the Islamist movement in Egypt is perceived around the world.”
Egypt’s State Information Service, a government portal, released a statement earlier this week that said Morsi would discuss Egypt’s transition to democracy, as well as the crisis in Syria.
Morsi made headlines at the summit of the Non-Aligned Movement in Tehran last month when he publicly chided Iranian leaders for supporting the brutal regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
It was the first in a series of spirited foreign policy steps that Morsi and his advisers say are part of a larger effort to anchor Egypt as a more balanced and neutral player on the world stage — much to the chagrin of Egypt’s former patron, the United States.
Despite angering Iran with his public criticism, Morsi has since reached out to Tehran in a bid to halt the violence in Syria.
Morsi also chose Beijing as the destination for his first visit outside the region.
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US-Egypt relations are on the rocks after anti-American protesters stormed the US Embassy in Cairo earlier this month, demonstrating against an anti-Islam video produced in California.
Morsi was slow in his initial response to the breach of US Embassy grounds, sparking a diplomatic row with the Obama administration. Morsi, however, is still counting on crucial US backing for a roughly $4 billion loan from the International Monetary Fund to resuscitate Egypt’s ailing economy.
Brotherhood leaders say Morsi will clarify in his UN speech Egypt’s desire to maintain good relations with the United States, but that he will not be as loyal as former President Hosni Mubarak — particularly in the Israeli-Palestinian arena.
“We are not greedy for the honeybee’s honey,” Al Iraqi said, referring to the money and power of the United States. “But nor do we seek enmity. It will be a very balanced speech.”
Morsi is expected to address more forcefully issues like the war in Syria, Palestinian rights, and the problems facing countries that participated in the Arab Spring.
As one of several leaders elected democratically in the wake of the Arab uprisings last year — and as president of the Arab world’s most populous country — Morsi will likely to style himself a spokesperson for the pro-democracy masses in the region.
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Egypt was long the leader of the Arab world, politically and culturally, but its prestige declined in recent years after Mubarak let the country fall into disrepair, and his image as a lackey of the United States and Israel bristled others in the region.
Morsi is trying to reestablish Egypt’s position as a major regional and international player with a populist, pan-Arab and pan-Islamic message.
“This will be an international message about Egypt’s role, and how it aspires to grow on the world stage,” said Azab Mustafa, a Cairo-area leader of the Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party. “The General Assembly is the most vast portion of the world stage.”
Al Iraqi says Morsi’s message will resonate with UN member-states.
“It will show Egypt as independent nation that seeks good relations with the rest of the world,” he said. “But will not remain silent about injustices.”
Heba Habib contributed reporting for this story.