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Egypt’s Mursi Challenges Israel, Claims Arab Leadership

Egyptian President Mohamed Mursi staked a claim for his country’s renewed leadership of the Arab world by calling for changes in the global economic system and indirectly challenging Israel for possessing a nuclear arsenal.

“The will of the people, especially in our region, no longer tolerates the continued non-accession of any country to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and the non-application of the safeguards regime to their nuclear facilities, especially if this is coupled with irresponsible policies or arbitrary threats,” Mursi told the annual meeting of the United Nations General Assembly in New York yesterday.

Israel, which is not an NPT signatory, has never acknowledged that it possesses nuclear weapons, although U.S. intelligence officials estimate it has as many as 200.

Mursi’s speech, his first before the UN, put the world on notice that Egypt intends to play a larger role internationally and on its own terms. He challenged the current global order, demanding reform of an economic system burdened by “unfair trade rules” and decisions made by a few. He also made clear that Muslims are tired of what he called “Islamophobia.”

“The New Egypt is determined to regain its standing among nations and assume an effective role in global issues, stemming from the will of its people, as well as the legitimacy on which its regime is founded,” Mursi said. This position is Egypt’s birthright, he declared, rooted in “its ancient and modern history, its Arabic and Islamic spheres, as well as its African identity.”

Uncompromising Tone

The uncompromising tone of Mursi’s speech underscored the challenge the U.S. faces as it negotiates a new relationship with Egypt, for 40 years a predictable, if autocratic, ally until the fall of President Hosni Mubarak in 2011.

While U.S. President Barack Obama’s administration supports the so-called Arab Spring movement, Mubarak’s regime had suited the U.S. in pragmatic terms. It maintained the Egypt-Israel peace treaty and U.S. military access through the Suez Canal to the Persian Gulf.

Mursi addressed concerns about whether Egypt’s new leadership will honor its 1979 peace treaty with Israel, assuring “those wondering about our position vis-a-vis the international agreements and conventions that we have previously adhered to: We are committed to what we have signed on.”

Even so, in a speech that never referred to Israel by name, Mursi underscored the fact that he’ll be demanding change on Egyptian terms.

‘More Prickly’

“He clearly was putting Israelis on notice that the new Egypt will be more prickly in rejecting any pretense to ‘exceptionalism,’ whether by the U.S. or Israel,” Jeff Laurenti, a UN analyst at the Century Foundation in New York, said in an e-mail.

Beyond seeking legitimacy as a spokesman for the post-revolutionary Arab world, Mursi, the first Egyptian civilian president elected democratically and freely, was also explicit that he addressed the UN as a Muslim leader, Laurenti said.

“There was a special slant, too, to be read in his opening remarks: ‘I salute you in the name of Islam,’” he said.

In recent months, Israel has warned that it may attack Iran’s nuclear facilities if it thinks the Iranian government is getting too close to developing an atomic weapon. Iran, whose known facilities are under international safeguards to prevent arms production, insists its program is for civilian use.

Mursi delivered a rebuke on the issue that seemed directed to the U.S. and Obama, who said during his Sept. 25 to the General Assembly that the U.S. would do whatever it takes to keep Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon, warning that the time for diplomacy isn’t unlimited.

Law of Jungle

“The acceptance by the international community of the principal of pre-emptiveness, or the attempt to legitimize it, is in itself a serious matter and must be firmly confronted to avoid the prevalence of the law of the jungle,” Mursi said.

The Egyptian president signaled that he intends to make the drive to confront Israel and Iran over nuclear weapons a regional effort. He called for an international conference before the end of 2012 “on achieving a Middle East free of nuclear weapons and all other weapons of mass destruction.” He said the initiative would involve “the participation of all concerned parties without exception.”

Peaceful nuclear energy use within the framework of the non-proliferation treaty is a right of all countries, he said. Israel and Iran simply need “to provide the necessary guarantees to the countries of the region so as to remove any doubts surrounding their intentions.”

‘Palestinian Cause’

Mursi also catalogued a number of regional problems, touching on the plight of Palestinians, Syrians, Somalis and Sudanese as he claimed the mantle of leadership and offered Egypt’s outlook on how these issues should be resolved.

The world’s priority, he declared, is the “Palestinian cause.” Mursi said it is “shameful” and “disgraceful” for a member of the international community -- a reference to Israel - - “to deny the rights of a nation” and continue to build settlements.

The violence that the Syrian regime is inflicting on its people, whom Mursi described as “dear to our hearts,” must be stopped, he said. He mentioned an Egyptian initiative to facilitate a transfer of power from the regime of President Bashar al-Assad to a democratic government. Underscoring his Muslim credentials, Mursi said he unveiled the proposal in the holy city of Mecca.

Mursi also said more must to be done to resolve the differences between South Sudan, the world’s newest country, and Sudan, where disputes over territory and energy resources threaten to undermine a peace that’s barely taken hold.

Economic Criticism

Chastising Western diplomacy, Mursi said he had to “be frank” and point out that Sudan, which ceded oil-rich territories to the South, “has not received the support it deserves.” Sudan is predominately Arab and Muslim, while South Sudan is largely Animist and Christian.

Mursi’s challenge to the Western-dominated world order was clearest when he discussed the global economic system.

“The severity and recurrence of financial and economic crises, must lead us to review the international economic decision-making process that affects the fate of peoples that do not participate in their formulations, yet are the first to bear their negative consequences on growth, trade, the environment, as well as on the social fabric of society,” Mursi said.

He singled out trade rules, conditions imposed on technology-transfer agreements and financing for development. Egypt is negotiating with the International Monetary Fund for a $4.8 billion loan as it struggles to resuscitate an economy battered by the political upheaval.

Fiscal Gap

Egypt expects to miss a budget-deficit target of 7.6 percent of gross domestic product this fiscal year, Finance Minister Momtaz El-Saieed said last month. The fiscal gap reached 11 percent of GDP last year, while the nation’s net international reserves still are less than half the level before last year’s revolt.

“There is a need for a new global economic governance,” Mursi said.

He concluded with a demand that the world show Muslims more respect and less discrimination and refrain from insisting they adhere to a world view they don’t share.

“We expect from others, as they expect from us, that they respect our cultural particularities and religious points of reference,” Mursi said, “and not seek to impose concepts that are unacceptable to us or politicize certain issues and use them as a pretext to intervene in the affairs of others.”

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