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Egypt Tilts Against Assad

CAIRO, Feb 22 2013 (IPS) - Egypt has recently stepped up its support for Syria’s armed insurgency, with President Mohamed Morsi urging disparate anti-Assad factions to “coordinate” with a leading Syrian opposition coalition that has taken Cairo as its headquarters.

“Egypt has recently begun translating words into deeds in terms of its stated support for the Syrian rebels,” Mohamed Saeed Idris, foreign affairs expert at the Cairo-based Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies told IPS.

Last week Egyptian foreign minister Mohamed Kamel Amr met with recently defected Syrian prime minister Riad Hegab. The two men reportedly discussed “possible means of ending the suffering of the Syrian people and realising their aspirations for freedom, dignity and change in Syria,” according to a foreign ministry spokesman.

One week earlier, at an Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) summit in Cairo, President Morsi called on Syria’s various anti-Assad factions to coordinate their activities with the recently-formed National Coalition for Syrian Opposition and Revolutionary Forces – currently based in the Egyptian capital – “in order to present a unified vision for building a democratic Syria.”

Egypt, which has been largely preoccupied with its own domestic political crises since the 2011 revolution that brought down the Mubarak regime, first came out in support for Syria’s armed opposition last summer.

At an August summit of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) in Tehran, Morsi irked his Iranian hosts – who have long counted Syria as a regional ally – by declaring that the Assad regime had “lost legitimacy”. Although Morsi ruled out foreign military involvement, he went on to assert that the crisis in Syria could only be resolved through “effective intervention” from outside.

At a November conference in Doha aimed at unifying the Syrian opposition (at which the National Coalition for Syrian Opposition and Revolutionary Forces was born), Egypt went a step further. On the event’s sidelines, the Egyptian foreign minister reportedly told Syrian opposition representatives that Egypt was “prepared to provide all possible assistance” with a view to ensuring “a smooth transfer of power in Syria.”

Shortly afterward, Syria’s newly formed opposition coalition set up its headquarters in Cairo. In a statement, Egypt’s foreign ministry stressed “Egypt’s readiness to offer all means of assistance to the Syrian coalition in the coming period.”

According to Idris, who served as head of Arab affairs in Egypt’s first (since-dissolved) post-revolution parliament, Egypt’s stated position on Syria is now closely aligned to those of the Gulf States, especially Saudi Arabia and Qatar – both of which are close to Washington and staunch opponents of Iran.

“Like the Gulf States, elements of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood – from which President Morsi hails – view Tehran with suspicion,” Idris said. “They believe that Iran aims to spread Shiite ideology in Sunni-Muslim Egypt.”

Morsi’s election last summer had been followed by a flurry of conjecture that Egypt-Iran diplomatic relations, suspended since 1979, were on the verge of being restored. Differences over Syria, however, now appear to have put any notion of rapprochement on hold.

“The resumption of ties with Iran depends entirely on Tehran’s position on the Syria crisis and the acceptance of Egyptian – and Arab – public opinion vis-à-vis that rapprochement,” Egypt’s President declared following the OIC summit, which was attended – in a historical visit – by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad.

Idris also attributes Egypt’s current Syria policy to the fact that the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood represents the “main component” of the ongoing insurgency there. While the two Islamist movements nominally work independently of one another, Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood nevertheless shares close affinity with its Syrian counterpart.

“The two groups don’t have an organisational relationship,” Hamdi Hassan, a leading member of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party, told IPS. “But they are closely affiliated ideologically.”

A member of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood – 27-year-old Mohamed Mehrez – was reportedly killed in Aleppo last week while fighting alongside Syrian rebel forces.

Hassan insists, however, that Morsi’s position on Syria is based entirely on “ethical considerations”. The Assad government, he asserted, “is committing war crimes against the Syrian people; it doesn’t matter whether those suffering are Muslims or Christians.”

Some analysts have suggested that Morsi’s support for Assad’s opponents leaves Egypt within the so-called ‘moderate axis’ of U.S.-friendly Arab states in the region. This grouping has traditionally included Jordan, the Gulf States and – before Hosni Mubarak’s departure two years ago – Egypt.

This ‘moderate axis’ is countered by an Iran-Syria alliance, which has historically opposed U.S. policy in the region. This grouping has traditionally been characterised by its support for armed resistance groups – especially Hamas and Hezbollah – against Israel’s ongoing occupation of Palestine.

The Brotherhood’s Hassan disputes assertions that, by coming out against the Assad regime, Morsi’s Egypt is choosing to remain within the pro-U.S., anti-Iran regional bloc.

“Just because Egypt’s stance on Syria is in line with the U.S. position doesn’t mean we’re pursuing Mubarak-era (pro-U.S.) policies,” he said. “The Mubarak regime didn’t formulate policy based on ethical considerations; rather, it blindly followed U.S. and Israeli diktats at the expense of Egypt’s own national interests.”

Idris, too, defended Morsi from charges that he – and the Muslim Brotherhood he represents – plans to keep post-revolution Egypt firmly within the U.S. orbit.

“The chaotic domestic circumstances Egypt now faces, economic and political, are hindering the country’s new leadership from taking any steps towards changing Mubarak-era foreign policies,” he said, “especially regarding such major players as the U.S., Israel, the Gulf States and Iran.”

Idris added: “That’s why Egypt is maintaining, for the time being at least, its cold peace with Israel; its longstanding ‘strategic partnership’ with Washington; its strong ties with the Gulf States; and the suspension of its relations with Tehran.”

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