Morsi in Tehran: Crossing the boundaries

With all its uncertainties, Egypt has emerged as a moral voice from the heart of its revolution, writes Dabashi.

At Tehran meeting Morsi criticises Syria
Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi (centre) has called for the creation of a regional group consisting of Turkey, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Egypt to help resolve the Syrian crisis [AFP]

When during his speech at the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) summit in Tehran the Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi declared it an “ethical duty” to support the Syrian people against the “oppressive regime” of Bashar al-Assad in Damascus suddenly, for a clear moment, he became the messenger of the Egyptian Revolution for the Syrian people, and by extension for the rest of the Arab and Muslim world – that Egyptians as a liberated nation stand with them. 

The utterance, in and of itself, suddenly placed Egypt as the leader of the potentially free and democratic Arab and Muslim world – dismantling the old cliché of the US as the self-designated “leader of the free world”.    

Morsi spoke with a presiding authority that stems from no religious conviction, but from a moral imperative that only a liberated nation can momentarily invest on their elected officials. For a moment – and may that moment be extended into the rest of our history – the flower of the Egyptian revolution had an aroma pleasing to the world at large.  

Those very simple sentences suddenly dismantled a nasty binary – that if you spoke on behalf of the Syrian people then you had sided with the US-Saudi-Qatari design for the region, and if you criticised that design, then you had sided with the criminal Syrian regime. Morsi spoke from within that false binary and dislodged it.  

Much remains to be seen and much remains to unfold in the Egyptian revolution. The US and its regional allies are dead set to derail the Egyptian revolution to their benefits. But certainly as the fruit of that revolution (so far) and the result of the first ever free and democratic election in Egyptian history, President Morsi gave a clear and undiluted message to the Syrian people. 

This is not to say that the regional abuse of the manufactured sectarian violence in Syria by the US, Israel and the Saudis on one side, and Russia, China and Iran on the other, is to be disregarded. But with all its uncertainties, Egypt has emerged as a moral voice from the heart of its revolution and as such it is a force that Morsi’s speech in Tehran made abundantly clear. 


 Morsi criticises Syria at Tehran meeting

Beyond anything that any other country or political figure could do, President Morsi’s speech dismantled the entire propaganda machinery of the Islamic Republic, forced its official news agencies deliberately to mistranslate his words, replace the “Syrian government” for where Morsi had said “Syrian people”, and prompted a walkout by the Syrians delegation. 

The incident so paralysed the inept propaganda apparatus of the Islamic Republic that one official attributed the walkout to the call of nature – “they had to go the bathroom,” he surmised.  

Morsi’s statement reverberated from Tehran to the rest of the Muslim world: “Our solidarity with the struggle of the Syrian people,” he said according to Al Jazeera, “against an oppressive regime that has lost its legitimacy is an ethical duty as it is a political and strategic necessity.”  

He declared: “We all have to announce our full solidarity with the struggle of those seeking freedom and justice in Syria, and translate this sympathy into a clear political vision that supports a peaceful transition to a democratic system of rule that reflects the demands of the Syrian people for freedom.”  

Two nations at two moments   

Morsi’s visit to Iran happened at a time that the two nations are at two vastly different time zones: Egypt has just emerged triumphantly (however tenuously) from a vastly popular revolution, and Iran is still in the claws of a deeply totalitarian regime that has managed to damage control its own democratic uprising in the form of the Green Movement. The encounter is historically instructive.   

First and foremost, the visit exposed the utterly delusional disposition of Ali Khamenei, the Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic, who has called the Arab Spring an “Islamic Awakening”.    

The obvious question on many people’s mind is whether or not after this historic visit Iran and Egypt will resume their diplomatic relations, severed ever since the late Sadat offered the late Shah haven to pass his final days in peace.  

But far more necessary than the full diplomatic relations is the necessity of society-to-society relationship that can be vastly beneficial to both nations – Iranians have much to tell Egyptians at how to safeguard their revolution against ideological totalitarianism of one sort or another – while Egyptians can be the voice of the repressed democratic aspirations in Iran. Here, President Morsi fell well short of what he could have done. Why?     

Ethical duty at large  

This rise of Egypt as a leader of the free Arab and Muslim world has only one hole in it, a small hole, the size of a small island: Bahrain. 


 Inside Story – Did the NAM summit backfire on Iran?

The prototypically clumsy liars at the helm of the propaganda machinery of the Islamic Republic had at one point replaced the word “Bahrain” for “Syria” in President Morsi’s speech. The blatant lie has promoted a diplomatic row (source in Persian) between Iran and Bahrain.   

The Bahraini officials have asked for an apology from Iran – while President Morsi’s aides have categorically denied any mention of Bahrain in his speech and corroborated the charge that Iranian officials have deliberately misled and lied in their report of Morsi’s speech on their official news agencies.   

But the fact that the Islamic Republic has tried in vain to distort President Morsi’s speech to suit its own purpose does not discount the more honest question that Bahrainis themselves may ask (and have asked) the Egyptian President – indeed why should he not speak on their behalf with the same moral authority he did about the Syrians?   

In fact, forget about using the occasion of the NAM conference to talk about the Bahraini uprising. How about simply allowing Bahraini activist into Egypt?    

The prominent Bahraini activist Maryam Al-Khawaja has recently written to President Morsi complaining that she and other Bahraini activists have been denied entry into Egypt. They were led to believe that Egypt was “Umm al-Dunya/Mother of the World”, as the famous song had it during the Egyptian revolution.  

Is Bahrain not part of the world, are Bahraini not entitled to their liberty, to their share of the Tahrir Square they call Pearl Square?   

Maryam Al-Khawaja, who is the acting president of the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights, was refused entry into Egypt when security officials told her that was because of “top security reasons”. What are those reasons, Mr President?   

According to BBC News, “She said intelligence services working for deposed President Hosni Mubarak used to harass Bahrain’s activists on behalf of that Gulf regime.” But we thought Hosni Mubarak was no longer the Egyptian President – so who did exactly deny these Bahrainis, trying to connect to their Egyptian counterparts, entry into Egypt?      

Maryam Al-Khawaja has written to President Morsi – and this is what she wrote: “How can such blatant disregard for the law and basic human dignities continue under your watch?” This is no longer the corrupt officials of the Islamic Republic mistranslating Morsi’s speech. This is a Bahraini human rights activist – equally deserving dignity of the Egyptian people’s support.   

Maryam Al-Khawaja eventually travelled to South Africa without entering Egypt. According to BBC News, “She was denied entry into Egypt initially in April, but was later allowed in after lawyers intervened. She said in her letter that security officials told her she was allowed in then because they were protests in Egypt at the time, and authorities apparently feared a backlash if she were turned away.”   

What is even worse is that “Al-Khawaja’s colleague Nabeel Rajab was denied entry into Egypt and deported back to Bahrain. He was arrested in Bahrain a month later and is in prison serving a three-year sentence for his role in allegedly encouraging protesters in Bahrain to clash with security forces.” Any “ethical duty” here, Mr President, to support the Bahraini people against their “oppressive regime”, perhaps, sir?   

There are reports that Saudi Arabia is considering “matching US military aid to Egypt”. Is that the reason that Bahrainis do not deserve the Egyptian President’s moral support? Or, horrible dictu, is it because they are Shias?  


 Who is Mohamed Morsi?

Bahrain will always remain the acid test of the Arab Spring. Will that tiny island be allowed its democratic aspirations or will they be thwarted by the might and money of the Saudis. But it is not just Bahrain that President Morsi ignored.  

Was a sectarian consideration also at work that he did not utter a word in solidarity with the repressed aspirations of Iranians for liberty – in conspicuous contrast to the UN General Secretary Ban Ki-moon who did so deliberately and clearly – for he has no consideration who is a Sunni and who a Shia when it comes to people’s civil liberties?   

Are 75 million Iranians, just because like the one million plus Bahrainis who happen to be Shias, underserving of democracy?  

Was Morsi there as a Sunni member of the Muslim Brotherhood mindful of the Saudi purses or was he there as the fruit of the Egyptian revolution and the Egyptian revolutionaries who have repeatedly expressed their solidarities with the cause of liberty in Bahrain and Iran?   

Are Iranians to be ruled by a band of Shia clerics just because they are Shias and then not hearing a word of solidarity from the Egyptian president again because they are Shias?   

Did anyone tell the Egyptian president that his words on behalf of the Syrian people might be compromised if they smelled of sectarianism – or catering to the Saudis, or the Americans, or the IMF? Someone should have.   

It is only inevitable for Americans and the Saudis to try to buy the Egyptian revolution. That’s what wealthy people do – they think they can buy everything. Right now, Sheldon Adelson (a wealthy casino magnet) is trying to buy the next president of the United States for Israel. But did Egyptian revolutionaries topple a dictatorship to replace it with a client state of Saudi Arabia? All the signs are to the contrary.   

Need vigilance 

The Egyptian revolution needs vigilance, as Egyptians know only too well. A key factor in that vigilance is to see if the Egyptian president and other elected officials remain true to the cause of liberty, as they have in Syria, identically in other parts of the Arab and Muslim world. Despite these troubling signs there many causes for optimism.


 Inside Syria – Can Iran help end the Syrian crisis?

President Morsi’s visits to China and Iran seem to point to the emergence of a regional and global role for Egypt as a newly liberated nation. Morsi has called for the creation of a regional group consisting of Turkey, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Egypt to help resolve the Syrian crisis. 

This is decidedly against the US-led initiative in the region. This is necessary but not sufficient – unless and until the cause of liberty evident in Egypt and Turkey are equally extended to the two tyrannical regimes of Iran and Saudi Arabia. 

In this regard, it is important to look at other parts of Morsi’s speech, the parts that have been by and large disregarded. “Now we are all facing grave challenges confronted by our member states,” he said, according to a translated transcript by the New York Times, about the Non-Aligned Movement.  

He mentioned Palestinians at the same breath when he cited the Syrians: “The Palestinian and Syrian people are currently struggling with impressive valiance in calling for freedom, justice and human dignity.”  

Morsi provided a vision of the role of Egypt in world affairs, with a clear awareness of the colonial and post-colonial histories: “… The fate of the Non-Aligned Movement is to play a pivotal role in these critical moments. The foundation of the movement came in the prime of the cold war and in the light of the struggle of colonised peoples at the time to acquire its independence and sovereignty.”   

He called for the creation of a “just world” and he declared – in fact echoing Ali Khamenei – that “the first step of accomplishing this goal is comprehensively reforming and broadening the Security Council; reforming and broadening the Security Council comprehensively to be more representative of the established international system in the 21st century rather than a reflection of how things used to be … during the past century.”   

He was particularly mindful of Africa: “It’s no longer acceptable, for example, to continue the historic injustice done to Africa, with no representation in the permanent membership category in the Security Council, and only weak representation in the non-permanent membership category, even though many of the issues on the agenda of the Council concern the states of the African continent.”   

This is a remarkable angle on the potential significance of Egypt for the African continent.   

There is indeed much hope that one can safely place in the future of Egypt for a free and democratic Arab and Muslim world and beyond – but only if the petty sectarian quarrels execrated by a nasty history of colonialism are not allowed to facilitate the disfiguring power of Saudi potentates to decide the democratic aspirations of so many valiant nations – including that of Saudi Arabia who may also dream of their own share of the Arab Spring.     

Hamid Dabashi is the Hagop Kevorkian Professor of Iranian Studies and Comparative Literature at Columbia University in New York. His most recent book is The Arab Spring: The End of Postcolonialism (Zed 2012).