Sisi and Assad, who will congratulate the other first?
What matters most is Sisi’s attitude towards Assad and the nature of the Egyptian-Syrian relationship
Unless someone says otherwise, the argument here assumes that the Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and former Egyptian army chief Abdel Fattah al-Sisi are to win Syria’s and Egypt’s presidential elections. The other thing that needs to be made clear from the very beginning is that no comparison is meant here between Assad and Sisi as they can’t be compared.
Assad is an embattled president, facing an armed struggle against his totalitarian rule with no allure or support except that coming from Russia, Iran, China and Hezbollah, needless of course to say why.
The latter (Sisi) is a “charming” presidential candidate, undoubtedly enjoying a massive wave of popularity among the majority of his people who see in the retired field marshal as their “savior” from the Muslim Brotherhood’s totalitarian rule and poor administration of the Arab World’s most populous country.
In the case of Syria’s June presidential elections, Assad will be facing no strong rivals in his quest for a third seven-year term.
It is even hard to say that the two Syrian presidential candidates Hassan bin Abdullah al-Nouri, a 54-year-old lawmaker from Damascus, and 43-year-old Maher Abdul-Hafiz Hajjar, a lawmaker from the northern city of Aleppo, have deliberately chosen to run for their country’s first ever multi-candidate presidential election aside from the consent of Syria’s ruling Baath party. Their candidacy has been unquestionably okayed by Assad.
Probably unlike Egyptian presidential candidate Hamdeen Sabbahi, who must be anxious now with regard to Sisi’s colossal popularity, Assad’s rivals al-Nouri and Hajjar will be fully at ease as they fully certain of their loss in the June elections.
What matters most is Sisi’s attitude towards Assad and the nature of the Egyptian-Syrian relationshipRaed Omari
Evidence for the presidential elections being genuine in the case of Egypt and not more than a one-man show in the case of Syria can be seen with regard to the biographies of the candidates in both countries. Sabbahi is a renowned opposition figure, Nasserite socialist with a long history of political activism. He was a strong rival in his country’s 2012 elections following the January 25 Revolution, ranking third place after Mohamed Morsi and Ahmed Shafik. Al-Nouri and Hajjar are not well-known politicians both inside and outside Syria.
So, Sisi can’t be compared with Assad nor there exists any similarity between Egypt’s presidential elections this month and those of Syria slated for June 3. Maybe this prologue can serve as a response to those who see presidential elections in both countries as similar in many ways.
However, what matters most is Sisi’s attitude towards Assad and the nature of the Egyptian-Syrian relationship when the two leading candidates are at Cairo’s al- Ittihadiya and Damascus’ Qasr ash-Shaab presidential palaces.
Maybe as caught in unrest and instability since the January 25 Revolution of 2011,
Egypt has not taken that decisive stance on Syria with Cairo placing itself “coyly” within the U.S.-led anti-Assad camp and the Friends of Syria Group. Such posture on Syria has turned tougher during Egyptian ousted president Mohamed Morsi’s rule, who once took a decision to cut all ties with Assad’s regime and shutter the Syrian embassy in Cairo. Several Egyptian ex-politicians and critics of Mursi opposed the Islamist leader’s decision, citing his complete lack of awareness of the “unbreakable” Egyptian-Syrian bonds.
When Egypt’s new rulers came to power following the June 30 revolution, which brought about the ouster of Mursi and proclaimed Sisi as Egypt’s strongman, Cairo’s posture on the Syrian crisis has softened considerably or restored its balance with little talk or criticism of Assad’s regime despite the fact that Egypt’s position within the anti-Assad Arab moderation camp was reinstated following the Egyptian 2013 public uprising against the Brotherhood’s rule.
Not only that, Egyptian foreign ministry’s invitation to a number of independent Syrian opposition figures in the beginning of this year to Cairo for “talks on unifying their desperate positions” was seen by many observers as an attempt by Egypt’s new rulers to restore their country’s leading role within the Arab region. Many others have gone further as signaling a new Egyptian a rapprochement with the Assad regime under the banner of fighting the terrorist groups. All in all, the new move has been received with a bit of estrangement by Egypt’s Arab anti-Assad friends who support the Syrian National Coalition.
Egypt’s new softened stance on Syria is in fact a continuation of the decades-long troubling relationship between Cairo and Damascus which always present themselves as “guardians” of the pan-Arab nationalism. The uneasiness between Egypt and Syria began to emerge following the collapse of the short-lived United Arab Republic that was established by late Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser.
The Egyptians have long accused the Syrian Baath Party of destroying the 1958-61 political union between the two countries. Such restlessness in the relationship between the two countries had increased even more following the October 1973 war Egypt and Syria fought against Israel. Back then, the Syrians accused late Egyptian president Anwar Sadat of acting unilaterally on the war’s aftermath. The Egyptian-Syrian uneasiness reached climax following the 1979 Egypt–Israel Peace Treaty.
The question now is would we see a continuation of such a troubling Egyptian-Syrian relationship when Sisi and Assad are in office? The answer is seemingly yes.
Arab moderation camp
On one hand, Egypt will maintain its position with the Arab moderation camp during Sisi’s rule but at the same time will maintain a neutral stance on the Syrian war considerably alien to that one held by its anti-Assad Arab allies much similar to that of Jordan. But Amman has its reasons for being neutral on the Syrian war.
So much inseparable from the scene is Sisi’s visit to Moscow and his meeting with the Syrian regime ally President Vladimir Putin. What is also worth-noting is the little mentioning of Syria in Sisi’s addresses to his supporters and even in the interviews which has been made with him except maybe for his support of the Syrian people and his assertion of the need for a political solution to the Syrian crisis.
All in all, Assad is strongly expected to send a cable to Sisi, congratulating him on his election with a call to the newly-elected president to enhance joint cooperation in eradicating the two countries’ common threat extremism and terrorism. Sisi is not expected to do the same but is expected to maintain a neutral and pragmatic position on Syria with his acts while as defense minister and words now as a leading presidential candidate unveiling a different policy in the making or already made on the war-torn country.
Raed Omari is a Jordanian journalist, political analyst, parliamentary affairs expert, and commentator on local and regional political affairs. His writing focuses on the Arab Spring, press freedoms, Islamist groups, emerging economies, climate change, natural disasters, agriculture, the environment and social media. He is a writer for The Jordan Times, and contributes to Al Arabiya English. He can be reached via firstname.lastname@example.org, or on Twitter @RaedAlOmari2
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