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President Morsi attempts to play broker for the Syrian conflict, including
Iran in a contact group; pressures US on Palestine.

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PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay in Baltimore.

In New York, the United Nations General Assembly has assembled. Most of the leaders of the world’s governments are there making speeches. And now joining us to talk about a few of those speeches is Vijay Prashad. He’s a professor of international studies at Trinity College in Northampton, Massachusetts. He’s the author of The Darker Nations: A People’s History of the Third World and, more recently, Arab Spring, Libyan Winter. And he’s a regular contributor now on The Real News Network. Thanks for joining us, Vijay.


JAY: So you’ve watched some of the speeches. What’s jumped out for you?

PRASHAD: Well, this is the 61st UN General Assembly. So there has become a kind of—almost a grammar of how the UN General Assembly opening functions. The main leaders come, they lay out their own basic opinion, based on the interests of their countries. Sometimes they speak at each other, so that—for instance, this time, Mr. Ahmadinejad of Iran gave a speech where he attacked the United States in a very oblique way, and then, you know, Mr. Obama from the United States attacked Iran, you know, here and there in the margins of his speech. But they didn’t—and they didn’t really address each other directly. So that’s the basic structure of the UN General Assembly’s opening, these large speeches.

Some of them are taken as important. The rest are utterly forgotten. You know, nobody cares when most of the 193 heads of government speak.

This year, the most anticipated speeches were basically from the leaders who came from the Middle East and, of course, the United States, that is, President Obama. So the three speeches that were closely watched were the speeches by Mr. Ahmadinejad of Iran, by Mohamed Morsi of Egypt, and by Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel. And characteristically, this has been the situation for last 30 years.

One of the important issues brought up at the UN General Assembly’s opening is the question of Israel and Palestine, which is why, of course, Mr. Netanyahu’s speech was looked at with some focus. What made this a little different than previous years is that this is the first major General Assembly after the change of leadership in North Africa and West Asia, which is what made Mr. Morsi’s speech so significant.

And, of course, because of the drumbeats of war, everybody wanted to hear what the Israelis, the Americans, and of course the Iranians were going to say about Iran.

Interestingly, the most fascinating speech didn’t come from Mr. Ahmadinejad, who normally, you know, is filled with a kind of bluster, but this time gave a kind of laundry list of criticisms against the history of the United States in particular, raising questions of slavery, raising questions of, you know, police brutality, raising questions even of the 99 percent. But this year he was fairly subdued.

The most interesting speech came from Mohamed Morsi of Egypt. And Mr. Morsi raised about three or four issues which I think are worth mentioning. One of them, of course, was the Palestine question. And, in fact, he led with the question of Palestine, saying that there has been the Arab Spring, there has been a momentous change in Egypt. And he claimed the mantle of the revolution, and not for himself or his political party, but said he was the first leader from Egypt to speak at the UN who had one a democratic election. So he said that in all this the Palestinians have been left out. So front and center for Mr. Morsi was Palestine.

But very much importantly in his speech he raised the question of a nuclear-free zone in West Asia, and, in fact, in North Africa. And why this is significant is it’s a way to relate the kind of garrisoning or strangulation of Iran to the fact of Israel also having nuclear weapons. That is, Israel is a kind of ambiguous nuclear power. Iran has a nuclear program that it’s got, you know, which is also not clear to the West, at least, whether it’s for peaceful purposes or whether it’s for military purposes, but there’s no question that Israel has an ambiguous nuclear kind of program.

So Mr. Morsi, having said that Palestine must be front and center, came out directly and said, we need to create a Middle East nuclear-free zone. I think this is a very important thing coming from him. He’s raised a question which had previously been kept at the margins. You know, very marginal actors had talked about a nuclear-free zone in the Middle East. It’s significant that he put it front-and-center.

Mr. Morsi also waded directly into the conflict in Syria, where he spoke a little bit about the Syria contact group, which he had initiated, bringing together Turkey, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Iran. Now, this contact group has had its problems. It was supposed to meet on the sidelines of the General Assembly, but that has been postponed because the Turkish prime minister, Mr. Erdogan, was not able to come to the General Assembly. You know, people may be interested to know that there is a great deal of turmoil inside Turkey. The southwestern part of Turkey, where there’s a large Kurdish population, is up in arms again, and this has compromised Turkey’s very aggressive stand toward Syria, and they seem to be backing off a little bit from their opposition on Syria.

JAY: Now, Vijay, Morsi’s rhetoric about Syria was very strong. He called it the great human catastrophe of our time.

PRASHAD: He has been—he said this as well at the nonaligned meeting in Tehran. He said this to The New York Times in an interview. He said this also on Egyptian state television. So this has been the position of Morsi and his government, very strong criticism of Syria.

In fact, you know, the numbers that we have now of just the dead are somewhere between 20,000 and 30,000 dead in the space of 18 months. So he’s not off when he calls it a major catastrophe of our times. You know. But he’s also gone ahead of his rhetoric, because he, by inviting Iran to join his contact group, Iran being basically, you know, still on the side of the Assad regime, by inviting Iran, he’s suggested that even though he has a strong position on Syria, he’s still willing to have dialog towards a potential solution that will stop the bloodshed there. And he made that a centerpiece of his speech at the UN.

And, finally, in Mr. Morsi’s speech, he mentioned the importance of a kind of new cultural compact. In other words, yes, he agreed with President Obama—whose speech, by the way, was largely for the domestic American audience. It was more convincing inside the United States than for the rest the world. But nonetheless, President Morsi agreed with President Obama that, yes, freedom of speech is important. But he said that we have to also have a kind of compact where there are some—there’s some sense of where it’s inappropriate to directly criticize people’s, you know, religious beliefs, etc. That was the kind of position he took on the film Innocence of Muslims and the protests and its aftermath.

And that’s a very interesting position he took, because he didn’t disregard the question of freedom of speech. He said the Egyptian revolution was about having freedom, was about having liberty, but this should not come, you know, without any understanding or responsibility. And, by the way, they very quickly picked up—the Egyptian mission was very quick to say that in France, where there’s a great championing of freedom of speech, they still didn’t allow people to come and demonstrate against, you know, this video, meaning certain kinds of freedoms were going to be restricted. So they said: let’s not take a holier-than-thou position on freedom of speech; let’s understand what freedom of speech means and how everybody abides by that principle.

JAY: But in terms of Morsi’s role, I mean, how much of this, then, is also just rhetoric and positioning from Morsi? I mean, he’s about to make a billion-dollar deal with the U.S. in terms of debt relief and other forms of aid, which has been described in the American press as essentially him agreeing to stay within the American foreign-policy orbit—that’s a quote, I think, from The Wall Street Journal or one of those publications. And so on the one side, he’s really fully in bed, it seems, with the Egyptian-American alliance. But he’s changing some of the rhetoric. And is that just positioning for his own public opinion within Egypt and within the Arab world?

PRASHAD: That could be. It’s possible that this is also slightly directed to his own public. On the other hand, if you go back and look at the New York Times interview he did, you know, there was no suggestion in that interview that there’s going to be a precipitous break with the old U.S.-Egypt relationship. But what he said there was going to be is a change in emphasis. That means that there is going to be a gradual shift away from Egyptian subservience to the U.S. State Department line. And I think that’s basically how he positioned himself at the UN. There was no grand declaration, there was no Hugo Chávez style total break with the U.S., but there was definitely a lot of daylight between the American position and what is emergent as a new Egyptian position.

It’s very important, what you say about the lack of any kind of discussion about the IMF, about the kind of economic policies that are around the world. You know, the UN General Assembly about 50 years ago, that is, in its first ten to 15 years, at the opening meetings, the speeches were preoccupied with questions of war on the one side, or, rather, nuclear confrontation, and economic development. You know, the issue of the North-South dialog was very much at the forefront of the United Nations. In the last 20 years, the two question of the North-South dialog, the question of, you know, so-called development of the IMF policies around the world, these have largely disappeared from the main speeches that are given at the UN. And it tells you a lot about the UN’s work, that it essentially has narrowed to a preoccupation with security and with so-called counterterrorism.

JAY: Now, just going back to the Syria question, the region seems to be all over the place in terms of their positions on Syria. I mean, Saudi Arabia is clearly arming the opposition. Qatar has called for an Arab-force armed intervention. Egypt clearly—Morsi, while he’s very critical of Assad and calls it this outrageous violation of human rights and such, he’s also against intervention, which means he’s opposed to certainly the Qatari and maybe Saudi position. The Turks are somewhere else. I mean, every—and, of course, the Iraqis are kind of more siding with Iran on this.

PRASHAD: I mean, the issue is that if you looked at the question of Syria and the region and asked, you know, each of the regimes that surround Syria, are you in favor of Assad or against Assad, that, they will tell you, is the wrong question. The most important question is that—what (A) are they capable of? What do they fear?

You know, if there is a continuation of this very, very bloody war inside Syria—I mean, Turkey at the initial point went far ahead of what its military was interested in. You know, the Turkish government of Erdogan basically called for the ouster of Bashar al-Assad. The problem is that they didn’t calculate sufficiently that there may be a call for the Balkanization of Syria. And if there’s a Kurdish autonomous region in northern Syria, this puts incredible pressure on Turkey to once again revisit the Kurdish question inside Turkey. And, in fact, over the last three weeks there’s been an increased upsurge in Turkish Kurdistan, and the military has been tied down there. As well in Turkey, the military has just had to face another embarrassment. Last week, several senior military figures were convicted in a coup attempt. You know, so in Turkey now there’s less of an enthusiasm for their earlier position.

The Qataris play a long game in terms of what they say. They have been saying for a long time there needs to be an Arab intervention. The question is: who is going to intervene? It’s one thing to make rhetorical statements; it’s another to actually understand your capability. The Qataris themselves cannot intervene in Syria. They simply do not have enough of a land army. They have special forces, they have aircraft.

The Saudis are not interested. It appears from what I’ve learned from my sources that when Morsi first floated the idea of the Syria contact group in the OIC meeting in Mecca, the Saudis cut a deal with the Iranians. The Saudis said to the Iranians: if you back off from, you know, helping or giving, maybe, support to the demonstrations in eastern Saudi Arabia, we will back off from our support in Syria. And that is the reason why Morsi in an interview said the Saudis were not at all exasperated to have the Iranians at the table in the Syria contact group.

So each of the regional forces has their own limitations here. And I think now, you know, they’ve come to an understanding that previously they had gone ahead of their own abilities to act in Syria. And I think now there’s a kind of a middle position emerging. I think this gives some space for the Syria contact group. If it can go forward, if people are resolute, if they are able to put sufficient pressure on Damascus, something may come out of that. And I think that’s the only hope for Syria at the present point.

JAY: Alright. Thanks very much for joining us, Vijay.

PRASHAD: Thank you.

JAY: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.


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Vijay Prashad is an Indian historian, editor, and journalist. He is a writing fellow and chief correspondent at Globetrotter. He is an editor of LeftWord Books and the director of Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research. He is a senior non-resident fellow at Chongyang Institute for Financial Studies, Renmin University of China. He has written more than 20 books, including The Darker Nations and The Poorer Nations. His latest books are Struggle Makes Us Human: Learning from Movements for Socialism and (with Noam Chomsky) The Withdrawal: Iraq, Libya, Afghanistan, and the Fragility of U.S. Power.