Egypt's new president assigned himself the heavyweight's role in the Middle East on Wednesday, declaring in his first speech to the United Nations that the civil war raging in Syria is the "tragedy of the age" and must be brought to an end.
In an address that touched on all major issues confronting the region, Mohammed Morsi also decried Israeli settlement-building on territory Palestinians claim for a future state and condemned a film produced in the United States that denigrates Islam's Prophet Muhammad.
He urged all U.N. member nations to join in an effort to end what he called "the catastrophe in Syria" that pits the regime of Bashar al-Assad against opposition forces trying to end 40 years of dictatorship. More than 30,000 people have been killed in the 18-month conflict.
Morsi has called for Assad to step down, though he said Wednesday that he opposed any foreign military intervention.
Morsi, an Islamist and key member of the once-banned Muslim Brotherhood, opened his remarks to the General Assembly by celebrating himself as Egypt's first democratically elected leader, swept into office after what he called a "great, peaceful revolution."
He then quickly inserted himself into the thorniest issues in the Middle East, demanding that the United Nations grant membership to the Palestinians, with or without a peace agreement with Israel.
The Palestinians are expected to again ask for U.N. recognition and formally make application to the world body in November, after the U.S. presidential election. President Obama said when the Palestinians sought recognition last year that Washington would block the move until there was a peace deal with Israel.
The U.N. Security Council, which could call for intervention or global sanctions against Syria, is deadlocked because Russia, Assad's main protector, and China have blocked a series of resolutions brought by Western governments.
Morsi also denounced as an obscenity the anti-Islam video that portrays the Prophet Muhammad as a womanizer, a child molester, and a fraud, insisting that freedom of expression does not allow for attacks on any religion.
He also condemned the violence that swept Muslim countries last week in reaction to the video. At least 51 people were killed.
"Egypt respects freedom of expression," he said. "One that is not used to incite hatred against anyone. One that is not directed toward one specific religion or culture. A freedom of expression that tackles extremism and violence. Not the freedom of expression that deepens ignorance and disregards others."
He appeared to have been responding to Obama's General Assembly speech Tuesday in which the U.S. leader again condemned the video but sternly defended the U.S. Constitution's free-speech guarantees.
In Cairo, Egyptians watched Morsi's speech closely for signs of how he would conduct his presidency. Sahar Abdel-Mohsen, 31, an architect, praised Morsi's condemnation of the Assad regime, but questioned his assertions about free speech.
"How can he talk about freedom of expression when there are many protesters in detention in Egypt?" she said.