Morsi’s Cheap Win on Syria

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It is a peculiar day for the Arab world when a political leader is accused of pandering simultaneously to the interests of the United States and ultraconservative sheikhs calling for global jihad. But strange bedfellows were made when Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi recently announced that Egypt would be “definitively” severing all diplomatic ties with the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad. Was Morsi seeking to win diplomatic cover from the United States and money from the Gulf in a time of great need, or was he responding to pressure from increasingly vocal Salafis and attempting to shore up his domestic support base ahead of planned protests? In a peculiar convergence of interests, these goals were complementary to each other. For now, at minimal commitment and cost, Morsi won favor among Egypt’s activist sheikhs and tapped into sectarian stirrings of the broader public, while bringing Egypt more in line with the position of its most crucial patrons and international allies. 

Morsi announced the policy change during the ‘Support for the Syrian Uprising’ conference organized by several Salafi parties and leaders, in addition to the Guidance Bureau of the Muslim Brotherhood. In a packed Cairo stadium, Egypt’s first democratically elected president broke relations with the Assad regime and pledged the Egyptian people’s and army’s support to the Syrian uprising. Morsi called for a no-fly zone and denounced foreign intervention in Syria’s ongoing civil war in the same breath. While he did not explicitly endorse calls for jihad in Syria, Morsi did play to Salafis’ sectarian narrative by denouncing Hezbollah as an instigator of hateful strife in the region. The speech was a crowd pleaser, eliciting enthusiastic applause from the tens of thousands.  

Timing suggests that Morsi’s decision was driven by the drumbeat of a new domestic opposition campaign set to culminate in mass protests at the end of the month. The Tamarod (Rebel) movement has been collecting signatures withdrawing confidence from the president and planning mass protests in Cairo to mark the one-year anniversary of his inauguration. It is difficult to predict whether this grassroots activist campaign will translate into major public demonstrations. However, Morsi is also under pressure with an economic crisis, an ongoing power struggle with Egypt’s judiciary, and an overall loss of popular support for the Muslim Brotherhood that could eventually mean losses at the polls. Embattled leaders typically welcome external crises like the Syria conflict that can deflect attention from growing domestic tensions, and Morsi may have calculated that dramatically severing ties with Syria could temporarily distract from his botched presidency. 

More importantly, Morsi’s public break with the Syrian regime was a concession to his Salafi support base and a populist move tapping into rising sectarian sentiment in Egypt. While the Muslim Brotherhood’s relations with al-Nour, the largest Salafi political party in Egypt, are strained, it does receive backing from smaller Salafi parties, movements, and individual clerics. Sheikhs ranging from Qatar-based Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi to the head of the mainstream al-Azhar religious institution, Grand Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayeb, have denounced the slaughter of Sunnis at the hands of the Syrian Alawite regime and in some cases enjoined dutiful Muslims to perform jihad against it. Morsi understands that the support of Salafis in the looming showdown between his adversaries and supporters may prove critical, a good enough reason to break remaining ties with the Syrian regime, criticize Hezbollah in sectarian jargon, and distance Egypt from Iran. Cutting ties with Syria is also likely to increase Morsi’s popularity among his broader Islamist constituency by tapping into a reservoir of resentment against Syria’s murderous regime and playing to sectarian Sunni-Shiite divisions that resonate with a large portion of the population.  

Several of Egypt’s opposition groups have framed the policy change as a shameless appeasement of the United States, timed and coordinated with its own recent announcement to provide military support to Syria’s rebels. However, it is unlikely that the United States was expending political capital behind closed doors to pressure Morsi on Syria, especially considering that Egypt’s relationship with Assad did not involve material or political support. If Morsi hopes that falling in line with Western allies on Syria will buy him enhanced diplomatic cover ahead of June protests, disappointment is in store.  The balancing act that the US government performs in its relations with Egypt, quietly and privately pushing for good governance while remaining unwilling to jeopardize the strategic underpinnings of their cooperation, is unaffected by Egypt’s position on Syria.

Joining the anti-Assad ranks, however, may buy President Morsi leverage among Gulf allies. Morsi has made positive relations with Saudi Arabia and Qatar a priority due to Egypt’s dire need for cash flow. Qatar has been bankrolling the Egyptian government in lieu of an agreement between Egypt and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) on a potential $4.8 billion loan, and Morsi has also solicited financial and fuel aid from Saudi Arabia. His announcement on Syria brings Egypt’s position more in line with both patrons, who have been the primary supporters and financiers of the Syrian opposition and are eager to see Assad forced from power.

Short-term costs of the policy change on Syria are limited to enragement of Egypt’s opposition parties and a cooling of relations with Tehran. Morsi’s message on Syria was interwoven with familiar attempts to discredit the opposition as remnants of the Mubarak regime, and a Muslim-Brotherhood affiliated sheikh went so far as to condemn Egyptians planning to take part in June protests as infidels.  The remarks elicited outrage, but Egypt’s deeply polarized domestic scene minimizes Morsi’s political costs in provoking anger among opposition groups and diminishes incentives to compromise.

Egypt’s realignment on Syria does throw cold water on the delicate rapprochement that Morsi was attempting with Iranian leadership. A previous proposal Morsi put forth in Tehran in 2012 outlined a constructive role for Iran, bringing Iran, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey together to mediate a solution in Syria. However, shortly after a follow-up meeting with former Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the separate signing of a bilateral tourism agreement between Iran and Egypt, Salafist groups in Cairo attacked the residence of the Iranian chargé d’affairs and the Muslim Brotherhood headquarters. Morsi signaled in his recent speech on Syria that he no longer sees a place for Iran at the table, and referred to it disdainfully as “some regional power that Egypt is obliged to deal with as part of Egypt’s regional responsibility.”  

Overall, the gains were cheap for Morsi. His statement endorsing the Syrian opposition and calling for a theoretical no-fly zone was popular among an array of constituencies and allies, but stopped short of making any tangible commitment of resources to the rebels. Similarly, Morsi implicitly lent support to Salafis’ vision of a sectarian struggle in Syria without ever addressing controversial calls for jihad. At the expense of jeopardizing only those relationships that were already strained, Morsi may have opened a door to better relations with Gulf allies and the United States. But Morsi’s newly bought favor may also be compromised by the minimal costs associated with condemning Bashar al-Assad, a leader long ostracized by both the international community and the Arab world. When push comes to shove on June 30, Morsi’s belated stance against the Syrian regime is unlikely to change anyone’s mind. 

Sarah Grebowski is a research assistant for the Syria Policy Analysis initiative at theRafik Hariri Middle East Center.

Photo: Egypt Presidency

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