CAIRO — Leaders of Islamic states meeting for a regional crisis summit in Cairo on Wednesday called for a negotiated end to Syria’s civil war, thrusting Egypt’s new Islamist president onto centre stage amid political and economic turbulence at home.
The 57-member Organisation of Islamic Co-operation summit opened on a day when the assassination of a leading Tunisian opposition politician highlighted the fragility of the "Arab Spring" democratic revolutions.
A important player, Syria, was not represented after being suspended from the Organisation of Islamic Co-operation last August. The Syrian opposition said it had not received an invitation and would not attend.
Tunisian President Moncef Marzouki cancelled his trip to the Cairo meeting after Chokri Belaid, a staunch secular opponent of the moderate Islamist government, was shot dead outside his home, triggering street protests.
With Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad making an ice-breaking visit to Egypt after 34 years of estrangement, the two-day meeting was focusing on how to stop the bloodshed in Syria, where Tehran is one of President Bashar al-Assad’s last allies.
In a keynote address, Egyptian President Mohamed Mursi called on "the ruling regime" in Damascus to learn the lessons of history and not put its interests above those of the nation. Mr Mursi urged all Organisation of Islamic Co-operation members to support the Syrian opposition’s efforts to unite and bring about change.
Mr Ahmadinejad earlier told Egyptian journalists there could be no military solution and he was encouraged that the Syrian government and opposition were moving towards negotiations to end the conflict in which at least 60,000 people have died.
"Fortunately in Syria at the moment matters between the two parties — the opposition and the government — are heading towards establishing the idea of dialogue and talking together," al-Ahram daily quoted him as saying.
Opposition Syrian National Coalition leader Moaz Alkhatib has offered to meet Mr Assad’s ceremonial deputy, Farouq al-Shara, for peace talks if the authorities released thousands of prisoners. There has been no response from Damascus.
A draft communique by Organisation of Islamic Co-operation foreign ministers blames Mr Assad’s government for most of the slaughter and urges it to open talks on a political transition.
Diplomats said Iran had objected to the wording and it might be toned down to spread responsibility more evenly.
Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari said the statement had to be adopted by consensus and would stress the need for dialogue and a political solution.
The text further urged the Syrian National Coalition to speed up the creation of a transitional government "to be ready to assume responsibility in full until the completion of the desired political change process".
Without mentioning Mr Assad, it says: "We urge the Syrian regime to show wisdom and call for serious dialogue to take place between the national coalition of the Syrian revolution, opposition forces and representatives of the Syrian government committed to political transformation in Syria and those who have not been directly involved in any form of oppression."
Mr Mursi, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, sought to project his country as the leader of the Islamic world in his speech seven months after becoming Egypt’s first democratically elected head of state. He told the assembled kings, presidents and prime ministers that Egypt’s "glorious January 25 revolution" that toppled Hosni Mubarak in 2011 "forms the cornerstone in the launching of this nation to new horizons of progress".
Egypt is taking the Organisation of Islamic Co-operation chair at a time of upheaval in the Arab world and sectarian tension between the main branches of Islam. Mr Mursi is grappling with sustained protests at home by liberal and leftist opponents.