Morsi Wants to Free Sheik Who Plotted Bombings in U.S.
CAIRO — President-elect Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood pre-empted the military’s choreographed swearing-in ceremony by taking his oath of office a day early in a televised speech to hundreds of thousands of supporters in Tahrir Square on Friday. But his rousing tribute to Egyptian sovereignty may be overshadowed by a promise likely to complicate relations with the United States: to work for the release of the Egyptian-born Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman, jailed for plotting to bomb a series of New York City landmarks.
The comments appeared to come almost offhandedly in the context of a vow to free Egyptian civilians imprisoned here after military trials during the transition after the ouster of Hosni Mubarak.
“I see signs for Omar Abdel Rahman and detainees’ pictures,” he said, referring to placards held by the crowd. “It is my duty and I will make all efforts to have them free, including Omar Abdel Rahman.”
Mr. Morsi then resumed his main themes about the sovereignty of the people, the importance of unity and fidelity to the goals of the Egyptian revolution. “We will continue as free rebels to achieve the rest of the demands,” he said.
The Muslim Brotherhood moved quickly to try to shift the focus of Mr. Morsi’s pledge, saying in a statement on its Web site that the goal was a potential humanitarian extradition to Egypt and that there was no attempt to question Mr. Abdel Rahman’s 1995 convictions for plotting terrorism against targets in the United States or Egypt.
The comments could deepen existing American suspicions of Mr. Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood, an 84-year-old Islamist group with a long history of opposition to the policies of both the United States and Israel. Mr. Morsi, in particular, has a record of strident attacks on Israel over its treatment of the Palestinians, and in an interview with Shadi Hamid of the Brookings Doha Center, Mr. Morsi once said he harbored suspicions that still unknown hidden hands played a role in the 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center.
“When you come and tell me that the plane hit the tower like a knife in butter, then you are insulting us,” Mr. Morsi told Mr. Hamid, as he later reported in Foreign Policy. “How did the plane cut through the steel like this? Something must have happened from the inside. It’s impossible.” (Mr. Morsi earned a Ph.D. in materials science at the University of Southern California.)
Mr. Abdel Rahman is serving a life sentence at the Butner Federal Correctional Institution in North Carolina. He was also convicted of plotting to kill Mr. Mubarak during a planned visit to New York in 1993 that never materialized, and was widely suspected — but never convicted — of involvement in the 1993 car bombing of the World Trade Center.
Signs calling for his release are always on display at the American Embassy in Cairo and at almost every major gathering in Tahrir Square.
Although it is all but impossible to find an Egyptian who supports either the 1993 or 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center, many are skeptical about the official American accounts of who was responsible for them or for other terrorist plots. Mr. Morsi’s pledge to seek Mr. Abdel Rahman’s release is likely to play well with the Egyptians who still resent the perception that Mr. Mubarak was a lackey to Washington.
But it runs sharply counter to assiduous efforts over many years by top leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood to convince the West that their group advocates only peaceful reform and does not condone violence. It may also set back a more two-sided courtship that has unfolded since the ouster of Mr. Mubarak, as the Obama administration began to build ties in anticipation of the possibility that the Brotherhood would emerge as the leading faction in a democratic Egypt.
Washington has pledged to work to support whichever candidates win Egyptian elections as long as they respect basic freedoms. And Brotherhood leaders have repeatedly said they hope to sustain Egypt’s alliance with the United States, the military partnership between the countries, the flow of aid from Washington and the peace treaty with Israel.