Egypt's Mursi says Iran is vital to ending Syria's crisis

CAIRO Sun Sep 23, 2012 9:24am BST

Egypt's President Mohamed Mursi meets Iran's Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi (not pictured) at the presidential palace in Cairo September 18, 2012 during a meeting on the Syria crisis convened by regional powers. REUTERS/Amr Abdallah Dalsh

Egypt's President Mohamed Mursi meets Iran's Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi (not pictured) at the presidential palace in Cairo September 18, 2012 during a meeting on the Syria crisis convened by regional powers.

Credit: Reuters/Amr Abdallah Dalsh

CAIRO (Reuters) - Egypt's Islamist President said on Saturday that having a strong relationship with Iran is important for Egypt at this time to be able to work out a way to end the bloodshed in Syria.

Speaking in a televised interview, his first to state TV since his election last June, President Mohamed Mursi described Iran as "a main player in the region that could have an active and supportive role in solving the Syrian problem."

Mursi, in a move to revive Egypt's role in the region, asked last month for Iran to join a quartet committee he called for which includes Saudi Arabia, Iran, Turkey and Egypt to try to find a solution to the violence in Syria.

Iran is the only state in the quartet that is an ally to Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad and has accused Saudi Arabia and Turkey of helping the rebels who are fighting to topple him. Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Egypt have all demanded that Assad step down. Iran was attacked at the U.N. Security Council last week for its continuous backing of the Syrian regime.

"I don't see the presence of Iran in this quartet as a problem, but is a part of solving the (Syrian) problem," Mursi said, explaining that Iran's close proximity to Syria and its strong ties with it makes it "vital" in resolving the Syrian crisis.

Mursi's comments came after Saudi Arabia stayed away from the quartet's last meeting, which Cairo hosted on September 17. Saudi Arabia's decision was seen by diplomats and western officials as a reaction to the presence of Shi'ite Muslim Iran, the major rival of Sunni Muslim Saudi Arabia in the Middle East.

Saudi Arabia has not officially commented on why it did not attend that meeting and Egyptian officials gave conflicting explanations for its absence.

Mursi said he could meet with top officials of the three states of the Quartet during the United Nations general assembly meeting he will attend in New York this week.

"And we do not have a significant problem with Iran, it (the relation between Egypt and Iran) is normal like with the rest of the world's states," said Mursi who last month became the first Egyptian president to visit the Islamic republic in decades.

AT ODDS WITH THE WEST

Relations between Cairo and Tehran were badly strained after Iran's Islamic revolution in 1979. Egypt signed a peace deal with Israel and became a staunch ally to the U.S. and Europe.

But it is now taking a position at odds with that of Israel and its western and American allies.

Former President Hosni Mubarak, who Mursi replaced after his ouster by a popular uprising last year, never visited the Islamic state in all of his 30 years in power. Mubarak was known for his opposition to the Islamists' rigid style of government.

Mursi has been outspoken about Syria since he took office on June 30. He has described the Syrian government as "oppressive" and said it was an "ethical duty" to support the Syrian people in a speech he gave from Tehran last month at a Non-Aligned Movement summit, which was the reason for Egypt's historic visit to the Islamic state.

"The Syrian regime has to know it is violating all laws and norms in its continuation to shed blood," Mursi said on Saturday, repeating similar comments he made during an Arab league meeting he attended earlier this month and in a previous exclusive interview with Reuters.

The Syrian revolt erupted in March of last year, one month after the Egyptian uprising ended, over similar demands for democracy and freedom. But unlike Mubarak, who quit after only 18 days of protest, Assad sent his military to crush the revolt, leading the rebels to take arms against him and prompting violent battles that have been going on for 17 months.

The United Nations says nearly 20,000 people have been killed in the conflict and more than 235,000 Syrian refugees have registered in Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey, while about 1.2 million people have been displaced within Syria.

PROMISES TO THE PEOPLE

Mursi has vowed to meet the Egyptian people's demands for deeply rooted corruption to be eradicated from all governmental institutions.

He has said many of the changes he made in the leadership of state institutions, which have included the military, the state's auditing units and the state's intelligence department, were aimed at weeding out corruption.

"I won't leave a corrupted person unpunished," Mursi said. "I won't take extraordinary measures but I tell corrupt people that under the law, soon you will be punished," he added.

In a surprise move last month, Mursi dismissed the head of the military council and the military's chief of staff and cancelled a decree the army issued that gave it legislative powers in the absence of parliament.

The army last June dissolved the Islamist-led parliament shortly before issuing a decree that was seen as a bid to restrict Mursi's role.

When asked about the army moves, Mursi said they were "obligatory," without giving details about the true reasons behind them. Yet he said he felt the people approved of the moves and saw them as strengthening "democratic and civilian rule."

But Mursi did not forget to salute military forces to deflect concern about a hidden conflict between the Islamist president and the army forces after the recent decisions.

"The military forces made a huge effort to protect the revolution. ... It is an institution respected by the Egyptian people and the President of Egypt," Mursi said.

Mursi also said he would back any legislation to put limits on minimum and maximum wages to achieve social justice, work to advance education and medical insurance systems and the state's political and security status to increase the flow of investment, which was reduced after the uprising.

When asked about how he felt after he knew he won the presidential vote to become Egypt's first freely elected civilian president, Mursi said: "I was filled by an overwhelming feeling of responsibility."

"The targets are big, hopes are wide, resources are huge and strong efforts are requested," Mursi said.

(Additional reporting by Ali Abdelaty; editing by Todd Eastham)