CAIRO — Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi gave his first major foreign policy speech on Wednesday, calling on Syrian President Bashar Assad's regime to step down and warning Iran against interfering in Arab affairs.
He also voiced support for Palestinian efforts to gain full membership status at the United Nations.
Addressing an Arab foreign ministers' meeting in Cairo, the Islamist leader outlined the foreign policy objectives of his administration, more than two months after he took office as the nation's first freely elected and civilian president.
His comments signaled an attempt to reassert Egyptian leadership in the Middle East. Many Egyptians say the country's role was diminished role under Morsi's predecessor, ousted authoritarian President Hosni Mubarak, and that this allowed non-Arab powers such as Turkey and Iran to gain influence in the region.
In lambasting Iran, Morsi has placed Egypt firmly in the camp of Gulf Arab nations led by Saudi Arabia, which see Shiite and Persian Iran to be meddling in their affairs and a threat to their security. The United Arab Emirates, for example, accuses Iran of illegally occupying three islands it claims as its own. Bahrain says Iran is encouraging the Shiite majority in the tiny island nation to rise up against the ruling Sunni minority family for more rights.
Mubarak was overthrown in early 2011 in a popular uprising. After 17 months of military rule, Morsi defeated Mubarak's last prime minister in a presidential election and took office in June.
Morsi, who hails from the Islamic fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood group, has chosen foreign policy as the forum to make his first mark as president. He started off in Iran last month with a surprisingly hard-hitting speech during a summit of the Nonaligned Movement. He voiced his support for Syrian rebels against Assad's "oppressive" regime.
Those comments took on added significance because they were made in Iran, Assad's closest ally and his main foreign backer.
Morsi continued in the same vein on Wednesday.
"I tell the Syrian regime that there is still a chance to halt the bloodshed," he said. "Don't listen to the voices that tempt you to stay because you will not be there for much longer. There is no room for further delaying a decision that will stop the bloodshed," he added.
"It's too late to talk about reform. This is the time for change. The Syrian regime must learn from recent history," he said. He was alluding to the fate of authoritarian regimes in Tunisia, Libya, Egypt and Yemen that have been overthrown by Arab Spring uprisings.
The Syrian conflict began nearly 18 months ago with mostly peaceful protests demanding the ouster of Assad, who succeeded his father, Hafez Assad, in 2000. The uprising morphed into a civil war as the opposition took up arms in response to the regime's use of heavy military force to quell the protests.
At least 23,000 people have been killed since the uprising began in March 2011, according to anti-regime activists.
"Everyone must realize that the Syrian people have made their decision and that decision must be implemented through change," said Morsi.
Without mentioning Iran by name, Morsi said there can never be any cooperation between the Arab world and neighboring nations except on the basis of "a clear and candid declaration of respect for the sovereignty of Arab nations and non-interference in their affairs."
On the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, Morsi said Israel was not making serious efforts to reach a settlement.
"We need to provide our Palestinian brothers with the necessary support to reach a just settlement," he said. Morsi also labeled as a "fair demand" the Palestinian diplomatic drive to win full membership status at the United Nations.
Israel, which Morsi did not mention by name, is opposed to those Palestinian efforts, arguing that such a move would hinder negotiations to reach a settlement.