Egypt underlines Iran's isolation at Non-Aligned Movement summit
Iran's leaders clearly hoped this week's would serve as an antidote to the diplomatic isolation imposed on them by the US and Britain. But , Egypt's wonderfully unpredictable new president, making the first visit at this level since the 1979 Iranian revolution, had other ideas.
Morsi's fierce condemnation of the Syrian regime, Iran's close ally, was as eloquent as it was piercing, and it came like a bolt from the blue. He didn't just rain on the Iranians' parade. It was as if Hurricane Isaac had taken a sharp turn north across the Caspian and unleashed its wrathful furies on an unsuspecting Tehran.
The Syrian delegation walked out. The Iranians did not have that option – they could hardly boycott their own meeting. Instead they were forced to listen as Morsi, a Muslim Brother, an Arab, and lifelong critic of western policy in the Middle East, thumped out an uncompromising speech that could have come straight from Hillary Clinton's playbook.
"We should all express our full support to the struggle of those who are demanding freedom and justice in and translate our sympathies into a clear political vision that supports peaceful transfer (of power) to a democratic system," Morsi told the 120-country summit.
Morsi said the world had a "moral duty" to back the Syrian opposition, whom he provocatively likened to the Palestinians, in their struggle "against an oppressive regime that has lost its legitimacy". Forceful intervention (he did not propose military action) was essential to prevent a further descent into civil war and sectarianism, he said. .
Morsi's speech all but completed Iran's isolation. That Russia continues to block effective UN action cannot disguise the fact that among all the – mostly Arab – countries of the region, non-Arab is out on a limb over Syria, just as it is over its suspect nuclear programme.
Morsi's stand was typically courageous. For many Egyptians their president's autonomy of thought and deed may be a matter of growing pride. This is the same man, after all, who boldly asserted civilian control over the military after his election victory, summarily dismissing the country's post-Mubarak leader, Field Marshal Mohammed Hussein Tantawi, the military's chief of staff, and the heads of Egypt's army, navy and air force.
And even as he bearded the Iranian leadership on their own patch, Morsi has made clear that Egypt's fawning subservience to Washington, evident during the long Mubarak years, is also a thing of the past.
His decision to travel to Iran at all was a signal of his independence. So, too, is his apparent determination to restore to its historic role as the Middle East's leading nation, a position coveted by Iran.
Egypt nations, Morsi's spokesman, Yasser Ali, said. "We need to establish relations with all countries worldwide… We will turn more agile, more active.
"Egypt is a pivotal country, and we want to play the role Egypt deserves to play."
While the Obama administration will undoubtedly welcome Morsi's comments on Syria and the implicit rebuke to Tehran, the Egyptian president's confident assertion of national interests is already causing ripples of unease. Dennis Ross, a Bush-era Middle East envoy, complained that Morsi was trying to gag the press by replacing 50 leading editors and journalists and was ignoring other key democratic "principles" (as defined by Ross).
Ross said: "None of this means that Egypt's path of change is foreordained. It does mean that the president, who has largely surrounded himself with members of the Muslim Brotherhood or sympathisers, dominates all of Egypt's institutions of power." If Morsi stepped too far out of line, the , Ross suggested.
Morsi's intervention will encourage Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states in their active support for the Syrian uprising. It may, in time, foster an increasingly interventionist, united Arab front against Bashar al-Assad's regime, as happened in Libya after the Arab League turned against Muammar Gaddafi. Given the myriad pre-existing tensions between the Sunni Muslim Gulf states and predominantly Shia Muslim Iran, the development of such a front would logically serve to further restrain Tehran's ambitions.
But regarding an end to the Syrian slaughter and a peaceful transfer of power, Morsi's contribution in Tehran must be kept in perspective.
In terms of changing facts on the ground, or substantively altering the egregiously negative Syrian dynamic, it may have scant impact.
Morsi's plan for a contact group comprising Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Iran was already opposed by the US and others. After his uncompromising Tehran performance, it will go precisely nowhere.
The proposal by Francois Hollande, the French president, that the ignored the fact there is not one Syrian opposition but several. Turkey lacks the will to go it alone in creating safe zones inside Syria, preferring UN and preferably Nato cover. And in European capitals, as in Washington, there is no more appetite for direct intervention than when the uprising began in March last year. Assad, the hollow man, meanwhile claims things are getting "better".
Despite 20,000 Syrian dead and the maiming and traumatising of generations of young people, the civil war shows no sign of stopping, may even be getting worse. "The bloodletting in Syria is the responsibility of all of us… the Syrian crisis is bleeding our hearts," Morsi said. He is right – and when was the last time an Egyptian president spoke for the world? But after his speech, significant and stirring though it was, the world is no nearer to finding a solution.