CAIRO – Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi's international debut made its biggest splash at home. After he publicly denounced Syria's regime while being hosted by Damascus' top ally Iran, Egyptian supporters and even some critics are lauding him as a new Arab leader that speaks truth to power.
That may have been precisely the point. The drama of his Tehran speech boosts Morsi, an Islamist from the Muslim Brotherhood who became his country's first freely elected president, as he works to entrench his authority in Egypt.
His speech also points to new images he is cultivating: The tough, fearless leader who speaks with the voice of a people who chose him. For Islamists, he was a Sunni hero against the Shiites.
"He bows in respect for his people, so world leaders bow to him," proclaimed a photo-montage posted on a Brotherhood-affiliated Facebook page.
In one frame, it shows Morsi bowing his head amid crowds of supporters in Tahrir Square. In the other, it shows Morsi sitting at the Nonaligned Movement summit in Tehran on Thursday, with several dignitaries stooped over him to listen as if bowing and hanging on his every word.
For critics, the gushing support is reminiscent of the unquestioning praise given in state media to his predecessor, ousted autocrat Hosni Mubarak.
Moreover, they point out that behind the dramatic gestures, Morsi is so far doing little to bring actual dramatic change in Egypt's foreign policy. Morsi is being cautious, reluctant to turn sharply against Egypt's main Mubarak-era allies, Saudi Arabia, the United States and even Israel. That is in part because he is constrained by the realities of the region and by his need for allies as he tries to address Egypt's domestic woes.
Morsi makes his first visit as president to the U.S. in September for the annual U.N. General Assembly session. Washington might have been expected to be unhappy to see the first visit by an Egyptian president to Tehran since Iran's 1979 Islamic Revolution. Instead, it joined in the praise.
State Department spokesman Patrick Ventrell welcomed Morsi's comments on Syria as "very clear and very strong," particularly as they were made in Tehran "to some people who need to hear it there."
Since his inauguration in late July, Morsi has promised a more independent foreign policy, saying Mubarak's close adherence to an American line made Egypt ineffectual and irrelevant in the Middle East. Morsi's supporters touted his speech as an example of his new approach.
His flair in Tehran was certainly a break from the tone of Mubarak's foreign policy, which usually saw dry repetitions of long-held stances and shunned drama. In contrast, Morsi swept in to visit a longtime rival, eagerly shook the Iranian president's hand, then gave a hearty call for world support of Syria's rebels against an "oppressive regime that has lost its legitimacy."
"People haven't heard an Egyptian leader speaking in this fashion, speaking out a foreign policy position that struck a chord with the region," said Michael W. Hanna, an Egypt expert at New York's Century Foundation. "This is the first time that Egypt struck a populist note in terms of its foreign policy in probably decades."
Even one of Morsi's staunchest domestic critics, Mohamed Abu Hamed, tweeted: "To the president: a salute of appreciation for your speech in Tehran summit. I hope you implement the ideas you mentioned."
He also won praise from ultraconservative Sunnis in Egypt who are key allies for Morsi and who only days earlier were loudly denouncing his trip to Shiite majority Iran. The ultraconservative Salafis despite Shiites as heretics.
In his speech, Morsi hit notes that were music to the Salafi ears. He kicked off the address with a salute to Abu Bakr and Omar, the companions of the Prophet Muhammad and his first successors. Mentioning them was seen as an implicit snub to Iran: Sunnis revere them, but Shiites hate them because they are seen as cheating the man they see as the rightful successor, Ali.
One prominent Egyptian Salafi cleric praised Morsi for affirming Egypt's Sunni identity.
"The comments had a huge effect and shook the hearts of Iranians like earthquakes," said Sheik Mohammed Gweili.
A hardline cleric in Sunni-majority Saudi Arabia, Suleiman al-Odah, wrote on his Twitter account: "Let all Arab leaders go to Iran if they will speak the truth like President Morsi did."
Dozens of supporters lined up the airport road to receive Morsi upon his return from Iran. "Free revolutionaries, we will complete the path," they chanted.
"Egyptians felt that their president speaks with their tongue and is strong through their will that elected him," Hussein Ibrahim, the head of the Brotherhood majority in the most recent, now-dissolved parliament, wrote on his Facebook page. "Outside Egypt, the Arab brothers feel that Egypt is returning to its place and is filling the gap that was caused by the previous regime."
For some, the effusive praise was worrying.
Sarah Othman, a prominent blogger and columnist in the independent El-Badil online newspaper, criticized Morsi's goading of the Iranians with the Sunni Islamic references as "childish, too naive and unbecoming of someone with such a high position." It "was only met with approval by fanatics and sectarians."
She compared it to an earlier instance of bravado by Morsi, when in his first political speech as president before a crowd in Cairo's Tahrir Square he opened his jacket to show he wasn't wearing a bulletproof vest. That may have worked in Tahrir, she said, but "there is something for every occasion."
Ibrahim Eissa, another prominent columnist, said the praise for Morsi overlooked its cautious political calculations. He noted Morsi made little criticism of Israel — "he didn't even use the phrase 'Israeli crimes," Eissa wrote, and reduced the Palestinian issue to that of Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails and other measures that Mubarak would usually condemn as well.
So far, Morsi has made little change in the Mubarak-era relationship with Israel. Morsi has promised to preserve the landmark Egypt-Israel peace treaty and security cooperation has continued as Egypt's military wages an operation in Sinai against Islamic militants who have attacked Israel and Egyptian troops.
Morsi has spoken more warmly of Hamas, the Palestinian Islamic militant group that rules Gaza. But he has not significantly eased access to Gaza through their shared border, a key Hamas concern. He has also sought to warm up to Saudi Arabia, a key ally of Egypt but a longtime rival of the Brotherhood.
Hanna, of the Century Foundation, said Morsi is in no condition to make major changes at a time when he has to deal with a faltering economy that needs aid from allies.
Egypt "has no economic base upon which to project power in the region. We are talking about a rhetorical shift in the near term."