NEW YORK — Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi made his debut on the world stage here Tuesday by condemning the recent anti-American violence in the region and hastening to add that freedom of speech must be joined with responsibility.
Morsi, who emerged from Egypt’s once-outlawed Muslim Brotherhood to become Egypt’s first democratically elected president earlier this year, addressed a packed audience of leaders in American business, government and philanthropy gathered for the Clinton Global Initiative.
He spoke out against the recent spate of violence in Egypt and Libya, where the American ambassador was killed, and the simmering protests throughout the Muslim world which were sparked after excerpts of a crude film that denigrates Islam were dubbed into Arabic and posted on YouTube.
But Morsi quickly added, “We must also understand that physical violence is not the only form of violence.”
“We must acknowledge the importance of freedom of expression. We must also recognize such freedom comes with responsibilities, especially when it has serious implications for international peace and stability,” Morsi said.
A former professor of engineering in Cairo who has a thick, gray beard and a prayer callous on his forehead, Morsi licked his finger as he turned each printed page of his speech. He rarely looked out over his glasses while reading in halting English.
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The Clinton Global Initiative held at a midtown Manhattan hotel has for seven years run parallel to the UN General Assembly, and in some ways has come to overshadow it. It draws celebrities and power brokers from Barbara Streisand to will.i.am and astronaut John Glenn to former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. President Obama also spoke, as did Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney.
Morsi looked a bit uncomfortable at first on the world stage, but he answered a series of questions from President Bill Clinton, who presided over the event intended to spur not just dialogue but practical commitments to tackle some of the world’s toughest problems. Morsi was direct and thoughtful even when Clinton asked about concerns many Americans feel about where Egypt is headed in the aftermath of a revolution that brought Morsi’s Islamic fundamentalist political party to power.
“The Egyptian revolution was by all the Egyptians against the great corruption that everyone saw in Egypt and that made our lives in Egypt very difficult. This is why our revolution succeeded,” said Morsi, referring to the massive demonstrations in Cairo in January and February 2011 that toppled the regime of Hosni Mubarak, who for 30 years had run a brutal police state that was supported by the US.
He said there was a solid future for Egyptian-American relations in the post-Mubarak era, explaining, “We must do so by working rather than seeking to dominate each other. People cannot accept domination any more.”
“It was a peaceful revolution," Morsi said. "One thousand of our martyrs were killed and many others were injured. But this was done by the old regime and now we have peace. it is not a military state, it is a constitutional state, a legal state and a modern state. It is a government that represents the people,” he said.
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When Clinton asked about the rights of women and the Coptic Christian minority in Egypt under his government’s leadership, Morsi responded with an answer that went on for nearly 20 minutes.
“In Egypt, all Egyptians represent the majority — men, women, Muslims, Christians. We are all the majority. And all Egyptians have equal rights in Egypt. What we learn in our religion is that God dignified all human beings with equal rights. And the Koran tells us that whoever kills one soul it is as if he killed all human beings,” he said.
Morsi also spoke of the need to unlock the potential of a largely educated and dramatically underemployed youth sector in Egypt. He talked about the need to lower energy costs by attracting investment in solar and wind power. And he openly invited the wealthy and powerful audience to come to Egypt as tourists and investors, and he vowed that the country will be guided to stability and a safe and secure society.
At the very end as President Clinton closed the two-day session, Morsi stood up and opened his arms to the audience, saying, “You are all invited to come to see a new Egypt.”