A Tale of Two Speeches: How Egypt’s President Was Received in New York and Tehran

In both places, the Islamist leader of the largest Arab nation asserted his country's independence of foreign agendas. But he seemed gentler and more accommodating in the U.S.

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Mario Tama / Getty Images

Egyptian President Mohamed Morsy speaks at the Clinton Global Initiative meeting in New York City on Sept. 25, 2012

Sitting and listening to Egyptian President Mohamed Morsy speak at the Clinton Global Initiative (CGI) on Tuesday in New York, I couldn’t help thinking about the first time I’d heard him speak in Tehran earlier this month. The Iranians viewed Morsy’s visit — before coming to the U.S. — as something of a victory and billed it as such in their media. So they were slightly appalled when he spent the bulk of his 45-minute speech lecturing them for supporting Syrian strongman Bashar Assad. His message was evident: I may be here, and I am open-minded, but I will not be used to promote any policy but Egyptian policies.

In New York, Morsy’s tone was gentler but just as clear. “The world that we live in is not unicultural,” he said, referencing American hegemony. “To understand one another, if we wish to coexist and prosper, we must learn to live with one another rather than dominating one another. The world we live in now cannot accept domination anymore.”

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But at CGI, Morsy seemed more accommodating. Speaking in English — he did his doctorate and taught in California from the late 197os into the mid-’80s — the Egyptian President made the point several times that, while he is a devout man, Egypt’s fledgling democracy is not theocratic in nature. In fact, he has repeated the same message everywhere this week from Charlie Rose’s talk show to his speech at the U.N. on Tuesday morning. “It is a democratic state,” he said for the fourth time at the end of a question-and-answer session with former President Bill Clinton, “not a theocracy, not military government, not a secular entity. It is a civil state, the textbook definition of a civil state.”

He also underlined Egypt’s desperate need for investment, asking for help in promoting tourism, technology transfer, resource development and foreign direct investment. “I hate talking about loans, I don’t like loans. I like real investment,” Morsy said. “In Egypt, we are capable of protecting investors and their moneys.”

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Morsy’s speech came a week after Egyptian security forces failed to protect the U.S. embassy in Cairo from protests over a California-made video insulting the Prophet Muhammad. Morsy has been working to undo the public relations damage since, assuring Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Monday that Egypt would do its utmost to protect the U.S. embassy and other foreign diplomatic missions and entities from now on. “This episode requires some reflection,” Morsy said. “As a Muslim, I believe human life is sacred. But [we] must also understand that physical violence is not the only form of violence.”

Morsy, who has come under fire in Egypt for attempts to limit the press, then continued, “While we must acknowledge the importance of freedom of expression, we must also recognize that such a freedom comes with responsibilities, especially when it has serious implications for international peace and stability.”

Still, Morsy might also reflect on how his speeches were covered in Tehran and New York. There was tussle and skepticism — as well as admiration — involved as the U.S. media followed him closely. Yet he was provided with a broad audience and clear opportunities to provide his side of the story. On the other hand, Iranian news reports substituted Bahrain — a country Morsy never mentioned in his speech — for Syria to cover his embarrassing criticism. They also reported that Morsy met with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad while in Tehran to talk about deepening ties. Morsy held no such meeting.

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