Muhammed Mursi, the first Egyptian leader to set foot in Iran in decades, caused a storm on Thursday when he slammed the Syrian regime as “oppressive” and urged backing for rebels out to topple President Bashar al-Assad.
Mursi’s address to the Non-Aligned Movement summit in Tehran embarrassed Damascus’s staunch Iranian backers and drew a sharp retort from Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem, who told Iran’s Al-Alam television the Egyptian president had broken the NAM tradition “by interfering in the affairs of Syria”.
Egypt’s state media said Mursi’s address sparked a walkout by the Syrian delegation, but Muallem said he merely left the hall for the interview with Al-Alam before returning.
“The revolution in Egypt is the cornerstone for the Arab Spring, which started days after Tunisia and then it was followed by Libya and Yemen and now the revolution in Syria against its oppressive regime,” Mursi said in his speech.
“Our solidarity with the struggle of Syrians against an oppressive regime that has lost its legitimacy is an ethical duty, and a political and strategic necessity,” he added.
Mursi, whose Muslim Brotherhood movement is affiliated with one of Syria’s main opposition groups, earlier on Thursday became the first Egyptian leader to visit Iran since the Islamic revolution in 1979 when he landed in Tehran.
Egypt severed ties with Iran after the 1979 Islamic Revolution brought to power a theocracy that opposed Egypt’s peace treaty with Israel and welcomed the assassination of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, who forged the deal.
Mursi, who was seated at the summit next to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, attended the meeting to hand over the NAM’s rotating leadership to Iran.
Iran had been supportive of the Arab Spring uprisings that brought Mursi to power in Egypt, but extended its backing to Syria when protests followed by an armed insurrection broke out against Assad.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights says more than 25,000 people have been killed in the 17-month-long revolt against Assad, which has turned into a brutal civil war.
Mursi’s visit marks a cautious shift in his country’s approach to Iran, which his ousted predecessor Hosni Mubarak had suspected of trying to destabilise his regime.
Egypt’s diplomatic line will be “more agile and active”, leaving behind the “stagnation” under Mubarak’s rule, Mursi’s spokesman Yassir Ali said before the trip.
Mursi, who has pledged to honour his country’s treaty with Israel, is also closer than Mubarak to Iran’s position on Israel and the Palestinians, especially the Islamist Hamas ruler of Gaza, on Egypt’s doorstep.
He emphasised in his speech the Palestinians’ “right to self determination and a free state” and demanded support for their bid to become full members of the United Nations.
Mursi’s spokesman Ali had said the president’s visit, on his way back from a trip to China, would last only several hours, and he would discuss only summit related matters.
Al-Alam television cited unidentified Iranian officials as saying the Egyptian leader would see Iranian supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei to discuss bilateral relations, regional events, and the revolts sweeping the Arab world that this year brought Mursi to power.