CAIRO On the eve of his first trip to the United States as Egypt’s new Islamist president, Mohammed Morsi said the U.S. needed to fundamentally change its approach to the Arab world, showing greater respect for its values and helping build a Palestinian state, if it hoped to overcome decades of pent-up anger.
A former leader of the Muslim Brotherhood and Egypt’s first democratically elected president, Morsi sought in an interview with The New York Times to introduce himself to the American public and to revise the terms of relations between his country and the U.S. after the ouster of Hosni Mubarak, an autocratic but reliable ally.
Morsi said it was up to the U.S. to repair relations with the Arab world and to revitalize the alliance with Egypt, long a cornerstone of regional stability.
If the U.S. is asking Egypt to honor its treaty with Israel, he said, Washington should also live up to its own Camp David commitment to Palestinian self-rule. He said the U.S. must also respect the Arab world’s history and culture even when that conflicts with Western values.
And he dismissed criticism from the White House that he did not move fast enough to condemn protesters who recently climbed over the U.S. Embassy wall and burned the American flag in anger over a video that mocked the Prophet Muhammad.
“We took our time” in responding to avoid an explosive backlash, he said, but then dealt “decisively” with the small, violent element among the demonstrators.
“We can never condone this kind of violence, but we need to deal with the situation wisely,” he said, noting that the embassy employees were never in danger.
Morsi, who will travel to New York on Sunday for a meeting of the U.N. General Assembly, arrives at a delicate moment. He faces political pressure at home to prove his independence, but demands from the West for reassurance that Egypt under Islamist rule will remain a stable partner.
Morsi, 61, whose office was still adorned with nautical paintings that Mubarak left behind, said the United States should not expect Egypt to live by its rules.
“If you want to judge the performance of the Egyptian people by the standards of German or Chinese or American culture, then there is no room for judgment,” he said. “When the Egyptians decide something, probably it is not appropriate for the U.S. When the Americans decide something, this, of course, is not appropriate for Egypt.”
He suggested that Egypt would not be hostile to the West, but would not be as compliant as Mubarak either.
“Successive American administrations essentially purchased with American taxpayer money the dislike, if not the hatred, of the peoples of the region,” he said, by backing dictatorial governments over popular opposition and supporting Israel over the Palestinians.
He initially sought to meet with President Barack Obama at the White House during his visit this week, but he received a cool reception, aides to both presidents said. Mindful of the complicated election-year politics of a visit with Egypt’s Islamist leader, Morsi dropped his request.
His silence in the immediate aftermath of the embassy protest elicited a tense telephone call from Obama, who also told a television interviewer that at that moment he did not consider Egypt an ally, if not an enemy either.
Allies? … That depends
When asked whether he considered the U.S. an ally, Morsi answered in English, “That depends on your definition of ally,” smiling at his deliberate echo of Obama. But he said he envisioned the two nations as “real friends.”
He praised Obama for moving “decisively and quickly” to support the Arab Spring revolutions, and he said he believed that Americans supported “the right of the people of the region to enjoy the same freedoms that Americans have.”
Arabs and Americans have “a shared objective, each to live free in their own land, according to their customs and values, in a fair and democratic fashion,” he said, adding that he hoped for “a harmonious, peaceful coexistence.”
But he also argued that Americans “have a special responsibility” for the Palestinians because the U.S. had signed the 1978 Camp David accord. The agreement called for the withdrawal of Israeli troops from the West Bank and Gaza to make way for full Palestinian self-rule.
“As long as peace and justice are not fulfilled for the Palestinians, then the treaty remains unfulfilled,” he said.
He made no apologies for his roots in the Brotherhood, the insular religious revival group that was Mubarak’s main opposition and now dominates Egyptian politics.
He repeatedly vowed to uphold equal citizenship rights of all Egyptians, regardless of religion, sex or class. But he stood by the religious arguments he once made as a Brotherhood leader that neither a woman nor a Christian would be a suitable president.
“We are talking about values, beliefs, cultures, history, reality,” he said.