CAIRO (Reuters) - Egypt’s new Islamist president said on Monday he would pursue a “balanced” foreign policy, reassuring Israel its peace treaty was safe, hinting at a new approach to Iran and calling on Bashar al-Assad’s allies to help lever the Syrian leader out.
Mohamed Mursi, who was elected in June and consolidated his power this month by dismissing top military leaders, is seeking to introduce himself to a wider world ahead of a trip to Iran - the first by an Egyptian leader in three decades - and China.
“Egypt is now a civilian state ... a national, democratic, constitutional, modern state,” he told Reuters in his first interview with an international news organisation since taking office as the candidate of the once-banned Muslim Brotherhood.
“International relations between all states are open and the basis for all relations is balance. We are not against anyone but we are for achieving our interests,” said the U.S.-educated engineer, appearing confident and assertive in the marble-lined presidential palace.
The first leader Egyptians have elected in a 5,000-year history dating back to the pharaohs, he spoke in a room for visiting dignitaries surrounded by monarchy-era furniture, oil paintings and a grand tapestry on the wall.
Mursi, 61, came to power after the fall of Hosni Mubarak, who served for decades as a loyal U.S. ally and the guarantor of Egypt’s status as the first Arab country to make peace with Israel.
His emphasis on balance suggests he is seeking a less explicitly pro-American role in the region, but he has also been at pains to reassure traditional allies.
Mursi’s Brotherhood describes Israel as a racist and expansionist state, but he resigned from it on taking power and has avoided inflammatory language. He repeated his position that Egypt will continue to abide by international treaties, including its 1979 peace deal.
Without mentioning Israel by name, he indicated Egypt’s neighbour had nothing to fear from a new military campaign in the Sinai Peninsula, which he ordered after gunmen attacked an Egyptian border post, killed 16 guards and tried to burst across the frontier into Israel.
“Egypt is practicing its very normal role on its soil and does not threaten anyone and there should not be any kind of international or regional concerns at all from the presence of Egyptian security forces,” he said, referring to the extra police, army and other forces moved to the area.
The military campaign was in “full respect to international treaties”, he said. The Egypt-Israel peace deal includes limits on Egyptian military deployment in Sinai.
Officials in Israel, already concerned that Egypt’s Islamists will support the Brotherhood-offshoot Hamas in Gaza, have voiced worries about Egypt’s build-up of heavy armour in Sinai to quash militants.
Mursi would not say if he would meet Israeli officials. Mubarak regularly received top officials although only went to Israel once for a funeral.
In an effort to increase Egypt’s role in regional affairs, Mursi has called for dialogue between Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Iran to find a way to stop the bloodshed in Syria. Notably, the initiative has been welcomed by Iran, the only country in the group that supports Assad.
During his interview, Mursi gave a particularly strong call for Assad to be removed from power, suggesting that he is comfortable taking a high profile role in regional affairs. It is a message he will take on his trip to Iran and China, which, along with Russia, are the main countries backing Assad.
“Now is the time to stop this bloodshed and for the Syrian people to regain their full rights and for this regime that kills its people to disappear from the scene,” Mursi said.
“There is no room to talk about reform, but the discussion is about change,” Mursi said, adding Egypt had repeated that “the friends of the Syrian people in China and Russia and other states” need to back ordinary Syrians. However, Mursi said he opposed foreign military action in Syria “in any form”.
In what could be an important sign of a shift in the region, Mursi’s visit to Iran this week will be the first by an Egyptian leader since Iran’s 1979 Islamic revolution. The two countries broke off diplomatic relations at the time over Egypt’s support for the ousted Iranian Shah and its peace with Israel, and have yet to formally restore ties.
Officially, Mursi’s visit is to attend a summit of the 120-nation Non-Aligned Movement, and he would not be drawn on whether Egypt would resume full diplomatic ties with Iran.
Asked whether he saw a threat from Iran, whose nuclear programme has sparked fears in the West and Israeli warnings that it could consider a military action, Mursi said: “We see that all the countries in the region need stability and peaceful co-existence with each other. This cannot be achieved with wars but through political work and special relations between the countries of the region.”
After Iran, Mursi will travel in September to the United States, which still gives the Egyptian military $1.3 billion in aid a year.
Asked how the outcome of the U.S. election in November might change ties, Mursi said Egypt works with the United States as “a stable institution” rather than dealing with personalities.
Stocky and well-dressed, Mursi spoke in good humour in the palace where Mubarak held court for decades.
Criticised at the start of his election campaign as a stiff politician who seemed more of a Brotherhood functionary than statesman-in-waiting, he has warmed to the role. His dramatic move against the army on August 12 stamped his authority on the nation far more quickly than many had expected.
Mursi’s rise to the presidency is not only a transformation for Egypt but also for him personally, climbing from a poor Nile Delta village to study in California before joining the Brotherhood. Like many members of the group, he was jailed for periods under Mubarak. They have swapped places and the 83-year-old former president is now serving life in jail.
Mursi sealed his rise to power this month with his audacious move to pension off military leaders who had ruled the country during the long transition after Mubarak was toppled last year. In his interview, he took care to praise the army in its transitional role and describe it as part of Egypt’s “national fabric.”
Liberals worry that the rise of Mursi and his Brotherhood group could lead to the imposition of Islamic sharia law, which they fear will impose social restrictions in a country where a tenth of the 82 million people are Christians and tourist visits to its beaches and pharaonic ruins are a vital source of income.
Mursi said tourism would grow under his rule.
When asked whether the new constitution, now being drawn up by an assembly before being put to the nation on a referendum, would seek to implement the Islamic code, he said it was up to the Egyptian people to decide.
Additional reporting by Marwa Awad and Patrick Werr; Writing by Edmund Blair and Samia Nakhoul; Editing by Peter Graff