x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

The future of the Arab world and its tired past

When the Egyptian president, Mohammed Morsi, and Iranian president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, addressed the world's leaders last night, it represented two men at the opposite ends of their powers and with competing visions of the region. Analysis by Bradley Hope

CAIRO // One is the newly elected leader of the Arab world's most populous nation, riding the wave of support for political Islam from the Arab Spring. The other is finished politically in his own country, regurgitating the tired old rhetoric from another era.

When the Egyptian president, Mohammed Morsi, and Iranian president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, addressed the world's leaders last night, it represented two men at the opposite ends of their powers and with competing visions of the region.

The rise of Mr Morsi, a long-time member of the Muslim Brotherhood until he became president in June, is a stark contrast to the idea that a government built by followers of political Islam must be repressive, bellicose and intolerant.

His term is still in its infancy but he has made it clear that he would not follow in the footsteps of the Iranian Revolution of 1979 by restricting the democratic rights of people in the name of religion.

Mr Morsi's talk of international relationships built on mutual benefits and justice is a far cry from the adversarial words of Mr Ahmadinejad, who called for a new world order during interviews in the run-up to his speech yesterday.

"God willing, a new order will come together and we'll do away with everything that distances us," said Mr Ahmadinejad. "I do believe the system of empires has reached the end of the road. The world can no longer see an emperor commanding it.

"Now, even elementary schoolchildren throughout the world have understood that the United States government is following an international policy of bullying."

Egypt's relationship with the West may have cooled under Mr Morsi's leadership - neither he nor Barack Obama, the US president, describe each other's countries as allies - but Mr Morsi has shown that he prioritises regional stability over confrontation.

Iran was an eager suitor of the new Egyptian government, describing Mr Morsi's election as an "Islamic awakening".

But when Mr Morsi visited Tehran for a meeting of non-aligned countries on August 30, he stayed for only a few hours and gave a speech condemning the Syrian government's assault on its people. Iran is Syria's strongest ally.

After the meeting in Tehran, Mr Morsi created the Syria contact group - made up of Egypt, Syria, Iran and Saudi Arabia - to attempt to resolve the 18-month civil war.

The speech and the contact group represented a rejection of the Iranian view that the Syrian government could stay in power, underlining Iran's waning influence in a changing Middle East and North Africa.

Radwan Masmoudi, the president of the Washington, DC-based Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy, said Mr Morsi has veered away from the Iranian model of government and sided more with the more successful Turkish model, especially on foreign relations.

"President Morsi has not been confrontational with the West," he said. "He has been critical and advocated finding ways that are mutually beneficial."

Mr Ahmadinejad's speech last night was his eighth and last chance to address world leaders at the United Nations. He is required by Iran's constitution to step down next summer, having served two four-year terms.

Mr Masmoudi said the inflammatory rhetoric of Mr Ahmadinejad also signified the failure of the Iranian model to bring freedom and a better way of life for its people.

"Iran went into a confrontational mode with the West at the expense of development and democracy," he said. "There was a time, in the early 1980s, when people in the Arab world were looking to Iran as a model. But they just stuck to grandiose speeches about changing the world and 'God is with us'.

"They failed to convince their own people and the rest of the world."

bhope@thenational.ae

* With additional reporting by the Associated Press

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