Perhaps the most anticipated speech at this year’s UN General Assembly meeting will be that of Egypt’s new president, Mohammed Morsi. The annual heads-of-state palooza at Turtle Bay is generally a yawner where very little news is made. The Turkish delegation’s brawl with UN security was the only memorable moment last year. In the past, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad and Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez could always be counted on for some shock value, but they have grown tedious. The flap about where Muammar Qadhafi would pitch his tent in 2009 was fun, but only in a sort of grotesque way—that was the rehabilitated Qadhafi who was morphed into an “eccentric desert leader” rather than the ruthless dictator he really was.
This year should be far more interesting with five new leaders (Libya, Somalia, Tunisia, Yemen, and Egypt) in attendance, especially with Morsi who made quite an impression at the meeting of the Non-Aligned Movement in Tehran in August. Indeed, Morsi has a reputation for being a straight shooter who is unlikely to be intimidated by his surroundings. When he sat in the People’s Assembly between 2000 and 2005, Morsi led a group of seventeen so-called independent Muslim Brothers, an organization from which Morsi resigned after being elected president, though his continuing ties to it are indisputable. During that time he and his fellow parliamentarians from the Brotherhood sought to hold the government and the then ruling-National Democratic Party accountable for various sins. He has, according to my friend Tarek Masoud of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, a “fighting spirit,” a character trait that came through in the very good interview that David Kirkpatrick and Steven Erlanger of the New York Times conducted with the new Egyptian president on the eve of his trip to New York.
When it is Morsi’s turn at the podium in the General Assembly on Wednesday, he is likely to run through a litany of issues that are fairly standard for Egyptian foreign policy—the Nile waters and Africa, Nuclear Weapons Free Zone in the Middle East, regional stability, and Arab and Muslim solidarity, especially after the uproar of the film Innocence of Muslims. He’ll also likely spend some extra time paying homage to the martyrs of the Egyptian uprising, which is part of the Brotherhood’s effort to create a narrative that fuses the group with January 25th even though as an organization, the Brothers were a little late to Tahrir Square. Morsi will also likely repeat his call for Bashar al Assad to step down. Calling Assad out at the world forum has three benefits for the Egyptian president. In addition to being the morally right thing to do, it places the Brothers and him on the side of revolutionary movements in the Arab world and demonstrates that Egypt intends to be a regional player once again.
It is also likely—given the signals emerging from the Kirkpatrick-Erlanger interview—that Morsi will take a strong stand on the Palestinian issue. This is nothing new for the Egyptians, but Morsi (and the Brotherhood) has credibility on this issue. True, the border between Gaza and Sinai remains tightly controlled and by all accounts the Egyptian and Israeli militaries continue to cooperate, but the Brothers have a long and principled history of opposing Zionism, Camp David, the Egypt-Israel peace treaty, and normalization of relations between Cairo and Jerusalem. Morsi is clearly interested in demonstrating that it is a new era in Egypt-Israel relations, where the Egyptian government will hold the Israelis accountable for developments in the West Bank and Gaza Strip as well as the ongoing standstill in negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority.
In an important twist, Morsi may well serve notice to the United States that he is turning over the trilateral logic of U.S.-Egypt relations in which Washington has tended to evaluate its ties with Egypt through Cairo’s ties with Jerusalem. Morsi seems intent on changing this state of affairs and his speech to the UN provides a good opportunity to alter the prevailing dynamics of U.S.-Egypt relations, telling the world body—perhaps not in so many words—that the quality of Egypt’s relationship with the United States will hereafter be based in part on Washington’s willingness to work toward a solution to the Palestinian problem, which means leaning on Jerusalem. Given the asymmetry of power between Egypt and the United States, it is unclear how Cairo could hold Washington responsible for the Palestinian-Israeli conflict in this way, particularly taking into account Israel’s popularity among the American public and the political strength of pro-Israel groups. Still, if Morsi does take a strong rhetorical stand on a relationship that is widely believed to have benefited Israel at the expense of Egypt and Arab causes like the Palestinians, it is sure to play extremely well at home, which is what UN General Assembly speeches are all about anyway.