UNITED NATIONS — Egypt’s recently elected President Mohamed Morsi on Wednesday rejected President Obama’s view of free speech rights and made plain his ambition to seize greater influence for the Arab world’s most populous country.
Morsi, in his debut speech to the U.N. General Assembly, said Egypt intended to lead the way in resolving Syria’s civil war, pressing the cause of Palestinians and defusing the threat of nuclear proliferation in the Middle East.
He also said that though his country now embraces democracy and human rights, it would not accept the categorical approach to free speech that Obama urged at the United Nations and would not tolerate insults to religion.
“Egypt respects freedom of expression,” he said, but “one that is not used to incite hatred against anyone. One that is not directed toward one specific religion or cult.”
He called on the U.N. to consider international action to crack down on speech that defames religions.
Morsi’s comments addressed a disagreement between Muslim and Western leaders that has surfaced this month since an anti-Islamic video made in the U.S. ignited protests and set off deadly attacks in nearly two dozen countries in the Muslim world. Muslim leaders have demanded that Western governments crack down on such expression, while Western governments have insisted that they must allow full free speech rights.
Yemen President Abdu Rabu Mansour Hadi, in his remarks, also rejected protection of speech that criticizes religion. “There should be limits for the freedom of expression, especially if such freedom blasphemes the beliefs of nations and defames their figures,” Hadi said.
Obama, in his U.N. address Tuesday, pressed Muslim countries to accept the Western approach.
World leaders have been studying Morsi closely since the longtime Muslim Brotherhood member became president in June. The Obama administration has been concerned that Morsi might take a more assertive stand on Israel than his predecessor, Hosni Mubarak, who was ousted last year.
Morsi said his “first issue” would be to press the cause of the Palestinians at a time when peace negotiations with a Palestinian state appear dead in the water. He also called for a regional conference this year on nuclear proliferation in the Mideast, and appeared to scold both Israel and Iran, condemning countries that don’t join the international nonproliferation treaty and signatories that don’t follow its rules.
Israel is widely known to have a nuclear arsenal, but it does not acknowledge it. Iran is a signatory of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, and has faced repeated demands from the U.N. Security Council to live up to its obligations.
Morsi said his government would continue pushing its plan to end the conflict in Syria in a manner that would give Syrians their choice of a new government “without the foreign military intervention that we all oppose.”
He also called for the U.N. to redistribute power from the 15-member Security Council to the 193-member General Assembly. And he urged an overhaul of the international economic system, which he said aims for stability at the expense of less prosperous countries like his.
Earlier, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad gave the last annual address he will deliver at the General Assembly before stepping down, remarks that lacked their customary fire.
Ahmadinejad, in his eighth speech to the body, complained that “uncivilized Zionists” were threatening to attack his country. But he otherwise sidestepped Tehran’s various disputes with Israel, including the standoff with world powers over its nuclear program that many nations believe is aimed at developing a bomb.
Ahmadinejad directed most of his comments to the unfairness of a global power structure built around the U.N., which he said oppresses most of the world in the interest of a wealthy minority in the West.
He complained that there was “no trusted or just authority to help resolve world conflicts,” he said. “The current abysmal situation of the world and the bitter incidents of history are due mainly to the wrong management of the world, and the self-proclaimed centers of power who have entrusted themselves to the devil.”
He condemned the materialism and corruption of the West, saying that the rich in America spend “hundreds of millions of dollars” on elections, spending what they consider “an investment.” In language that could have come from the Occupy Wall Street movement, he said the wealthy few didn’t care about “the 99%.”
U.S. and Israeli officials didn’t show up for the speech, but diplomats from many of their allied nations did, including the French and the British. Since Ahmadinejad limited his discussion of Israel, there was not a mass walkout from the chamber, as in many years.
In his customary whirl of media interviews this week, Ahmadinejad said Monday that the Jewish state was only a short-term presence in the history of the Middle East and would in time be “eliminated.”