The Egyptian revolution of the 25th of January began … well, on the 25th of January, 2011. The Syrian revolution of the 15th of March began, well, on the 15th of March 2011. The revolutionaries of the 25th of January keenly supported Syria’s struggle, and continue to do so – and the revolutionaries of the 15th of March responded in kind. As part of that solidarity, the revolutionary president of Egypt, President Mohammed Mursi, ordered the closure of the Syrian regime’s embassy in Egypt, and the recall of Egypt’s ambassador to Damascus. So continues the revolutionary struggle and solidarity of the Arabs.
Umm – not quite.
One can see an obvious, organic and intrinsic support of the Syrian people against Bashar al-Assad, even if after 100,000 deaths, many wonder about the wisdom of raising a rebellion against such a butcher. Of course, the real debate ought to be about whether or not it was even a choice to start with, but that is another article. The essential point is that within Egypt, sympathies for the Syrian people run very deep – and one would have expected that elected, ‘revolutionary’ Egyptian government would have expressed such sympathies in policies domestically and internationally.
It is tempting to see that sentiment being expressed in President Mursi’s recent statements – but that temptation ought to be resisted, until one considers seriously the timing of this announcement. The past week has not seen a particular increase in the slaughter of Syrians that would suddenly provoke the Egyptian state into cutting off ties – why now? What else is happening vis-à-vis Egypt’s relationships with Syria, and how can we now view this latest move? What other variables are in flux and at play?
How Egypt has dealt with the Syrian conflict
Let us consider how Egypt has responded thus far over the past couple of years. Syrian refugees have been coming into Egypt since their revolution began – and they have not been received by a particularly helpful Egyptian bureaucracy in the slightest. While one might have assumed that given the overwhelming public solidarity with the Syrian revolt among Egyptians, there might be corresponding moves from government institutions, one finds instead that Syrian refugees face the same sort of bureaucratic nonsense that any non-Egyptian finds in dealing with the Egyptian state. Indeed, the situation is so precarious that Syrian activists in Egypt who are trying to assist Syrian refugees prefer to remain unregistered entirely, with no official recognition of their organisations or fledging institutions, as to do otherwise would hamper their work to such an extent it would be intolerable.
The past week has not seen a particular increase in the slaughter of Syrians that would suddenly provoke the Egyptian state into cutting off ties – why now?Dr. H.A. Hellyer
Upon the Syrian scene itself, Egypt has played no military role in assisting the Free Syrian Army (any part of it) – whether in terms of arms, training, or other support. Indeed, the only real martial assistance that has been provided has come from non-official sources – individual Egyptian citizens who have travelled to fight alongside Syrians revolutionaries in solidarity.
A few things have indeed changed, however, in the past few weeks – and very little of it has to do with the people of Syria. Firstly, the sectarian tone of support for the revolutionaries, and the regime, from within and without Syria has intensified. This has been a reality for a while, but with the now clearly obvious role of Hezbollah for the Syrian regime, to the point of actually fighting alongside Assad’s soldiers against the people of Syria, no masks are left. The regime has turned this into a sectarian war, and within anti-Assad ranks themselves, there is a struggle that the revolutionaries themselves are waging against to ensure that the revolution does not become permanently usurped by sectarian undertones. Within Egypt, nonetheless, Salafi and Muslim Brotherhood preachers have not been so delicate, and the level of anti-Shiite polemics has increased tremendously. Yusuf al-Qaradawi, a Doha-based well-known Egyptian religious preacher, famed particularly among Muslim Brotherhood members, also partook of that trend, when he declared at a recent rally, ‘how could 100 million Shiites defeat 1.7 billion Sunnis?’
But there are two other variables that have changed as well – one international, and one domestic. Internationally, although this is less relevant, the United States has made it clear that they intend to raise the temperature in terms of the conflict with Bashar al-Assad’s regime – and this may have provided cover to the Egyptian government to do the same. There is obviously no question of ordering similar actions vis-à-vis Russia, although it is critically responsible for the support that the Syrian regime has received – Russian-Egyptian relations remain unchanged, to the point that when the Syrian conflict was raging, President Mursi was in Moscow asking for financial aid and assistance. Iranian relations from the Egyptian side, likewise, remain unchanged – even though the Iranian regime itself may become far more strident against Egypt in the aftermath of this change.
Threat of upheaval
Perhaps the most critical variable that gave rise to this change in the stance of the Egyptian state has yet to prove itself as real – and that is the threat of upheaval in less than two weeks from now, on the 30th of June. Opposition and anti-government forces have chosen that day for nationwide protests to call for early presidential elections, and the end of the presidential era of Mursi and the Muslim Brotherhood. The Brotherhood may or may not have reason to be worried about that day – but they appear to be increasingly concerned, and giving room for their allies further on the right of the political spectrum to dictate government stances is an easy way to ensure their support.
During the protests within Tahrir Square that took place during the original 18 days in 2011, the Syrian flag could be seen – and as soon as the Syrian revolutionaries raised the pre-Assad Syrian flag of green, black and white, that flag was a staple of nearly every protest in Tahrir. Solidarity with other struggles in the region has been a constant feature of Tahrir Square’s revolutionaries, with regards to every Arab country, and even beyond. One can remember clearly in the latter part of the 18 days that when the Iranian regime made comments in support of Tahrir Square, revolutionaries could make comments such as, “They needn’t be so pleased – because they’re also on our list. We guarantee it.” Al-Assad’s regime is also on that list – and while supporters of the reigning Egyptian president may not appreciate it, the current government is not viewed as part of the Egyptian revolution. Rather, the Muslim Brotherhood is viewed as a force holding the Egyptian revolution back from being completed – and these latest statements cutting ties with Damascus may be well overdue, but they are hardly going to be viewed as ones that redeem its revolutionary credentials. Indeed, they’re more likely to be viewed as evidence that political gain define the Muslim Brotherhood’s approach to Egypt far more than any ethical paradigm – even if it means using the struggle of Syrians.
Dr. H.A. Hellyer, non-resident fellow at the Brookings Institution and the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding, is a Cairo-based specialist on Arab affairs who previously held senior posts at Gallup and Warwick University. Follow him on Twitter at @hahellyer.