Arab leaders rebut Obama speech

The presidents of Egypt and Yemen argue at the U.N. that cultural limits on traditional Western freedoms must be respected

Neil MacFarquhar / New York Times News Service /

Published Sep 27, 2012 at 05:00AM

UNITED NATIONS — The new presidents of Egypt and Yemen — both of whom were swept to power by uprisings demanding democratic rights — issued clear rebuttals on Wednesday to President Barack Obama’s ardent defense of Western values at the United Nations, arguing that cultural limits on rights like freedom of speech had to be respected.

President Mohammed Morsi of Egypt, who billed his 40-minute speech to world leaders as the first by a democratically elected leader of his country, condemned the violence stemming from a short online video that insulted the Prophet Muhammad and led to numerous deaths, including that of the U.S. ambassador to Libya.

But Morsi flatly rejected Obama’s broad defense of free speech at the U.N. a day earlier, saying that “Egypt respects freedom of expression, freedom of expression that is not used to incite hatred against anyone.”

“We expect from others, as they expect from us, that they respect our cultural specifics and religious references, and not to seek to impose concepts or cultures that are unacceptable to us,” said Morsi, a former leader of the Muslim Brotherhood.

On Tuesday, Obama laid out a lengthy defense of the right of free speech as a universal value. But Morsi and other leaders signaled that such a right could only go so far.

President Abed Rabbu Mansour Hadi of Yemen opened his speech on Wednesday by demanding curbs on freedom of speech that insults religion.

“These behaviors find people who defend them under the justification of the freedom of expression,” he said. “These people overlook the fact that there should be limits for the freedom of expression, especially if such freedom blasphemes the beliefs of nations and defames their figures.”

Ahmadinejad softens rhetoric

President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran gave a subdued speech at the United Nations on Wednesday, sticking largely to spiritual and moral themes, rather than his usual annual broadside.

Ahmadinejad injected a few veiled accusations that the international media does not write the truth about Zionism. He also aligned himself indirectly with Occupy Wall Street, saying the voices of the “99 percent” were not heard in policymaking decisions.

— New York Times News Service