CAIRO, Egypt — Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi is intensifying his rhetoric against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, calling on the embattled leader to leave power and mobilizing fellow Arab nations to take action.
In a speech to the Cairo-based Arab League last week, Morsi called on the Syrian regime to step down, saying that “now is the time for change.”
"Do something and we'll support you," Morsi told Arab diplomats, according to Egyptian news portal Ahram Online.
Egypt’s erstwhile military rulers have long been silent about Syria’s civil conflict. But the war-torn nation, already beset by meddling from foreign powers like Iran, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and others, appears to have garnered yet another external player in Egypt.
But what role Egypt, historically a regional power but with crippling economic and political problems at home, can play in either tempering or exacerbating Syria’s war, in which more than 20,000 Syrians have been killed, remains unclear.
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Morsi has pushed Egypt’s role as neutral facilitator, calling last month for the creation of a regional quartet to solve the Syrian crisis that would include Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Iran.
“It’s an effort to try to broaden the diplomatic efforts to include an Arab nation that is viewed by the Iranians to be sort of impartial,” said Ziad Akl, senior researcher at the Cairo-based Al Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies. “We have now some kind of common ground with Iran, certainly that no other Arab regime that is involved has.”
Yet having already come down, at least rhetorically, on the side of Syria’s largely Sunni rebels, who are fighting a bloody insurgency against the Shiite-linked Alawite regime of Assad, Morsi may have already compromised his unbiased status.
In August, delivering the keynote speech at the non-aligned movement summit in Tehran, he angered Assad’s Iranian backers by labeling the Syrian regime “oppressive” and calling on the movement’s member states to “free themselves” from the oppression.
“The initial approach of Morsi talking about Egypt as facilitator is a dead letter,” said Michael Hanna, a fellow at the New York-based Century Foundation whose research focuses on the Middle East. “You can’t take a high-profile position on one side of this issue and expect that you can fill a facilitator role.”
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Hanna says the ideological affiliations that exist between the Egyptian Sunni Muslim Brotherhood, of which Morsi was a longtime leader, and the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, which dominates the opposition Syrian National Council, should not be discounted when assessing Morsi’s fresh stance on Syria.
Morsi’s comments arise at a time of increasing anti-Shiite, and by default anti-Iran, sectarian discord in the region, he said.
“And there is no way to isolate Egypt and Morsi’s position on Syria from broader sectarian overtones that have become an intrinsic part of the civil war,” Hanna said.
The rhetoric also strikes a chord with Egypt’s local population.
Despite an ailing economy that has yet to recover, and widespread dissatisfaction with Morsi’s inaction on some of the searing social and political problems that continue to plague post-revolution Egypt, the majority of Egyptians support Syria’s 18-month uprising.
In a June poll released by the Pew Research Center, 89 percent of Egyptians said Assad should step down. Eighty-four percent of respondents held an unfavorable view of the Syrian president.
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Since then, on several occasions, including last week, Egyptian protesters stormed the Syrian embassy in Cairo in bids to hang the flag of the Free Syria Army — a loose consortium of armed groups fighting the Syrian regime — above the embattled government’s mission here.
“Morsi is trying to consolidate a domestic image of an Arab nationalist president, the sort that is reintegrating Egypt into the regional equation in the Middle East,” Akl said. “What he’s doing with this is sort of winning over a big part of the middle class with Egypt."
"You have the upper class that is not interested whatsoever in a confrontational foreign policy, and the lower classes not interested in Egypt’s regional role," he continued. "But the middle class is seeing Morsi as a model of [former Egyptian President Gamal Abdel] Nasser.”
Nasser became president following a military coup against Egypt’s king in 1952, and was viewed by Egyptians as a populist-nationalist, but also a pan-Arab president eager to stand up to outside powers in the region.
Because of this traditional stature in the region as the Arab world’s most populous nation, “Egypt has a very big role in helping the Syrian people with what they need,” said Walid Bouni, a former member of the Syrian National Council (SNC) who was based in Cairo.
In a July interview with GlobalPost, Bouni said he believed the Arab League should be ready to intervene with a vast peacekeeping mission once the regime falls.
Egypt maintains the Arab League’s largest fighting force, but that too is problematic.
Facing a mammoth budget deficit crisis, and because the army’s cautious policy on Syria does not match Morsi’s enthusiasm for the uprising, it’s unlikely Egypt will be able to contribute anything other than rhetorical diplomatic support, analysts say.
“It’s hard to imagine Egypt is going to take a lead role in offering humanitarian assistance or otherwise,” Hanna said. “The kind of adventurism it would take for [Egyptian] intelligence and military to support the FSA [Free Syria Army] is probably a stretch too far at the moment.”
Alternatively, the powerful Muslim Brotherhood movement could call on its vast network of charities to increase informal humanitarian aid to Syria’s rebels, Hanna said. Brotherhood-linked physicians and pharmacists could organize medicine shipments or offer medical assistance in Syria or on the border regions.
“I think any sort of Egyptian commitment will be pretty symbolic,” Hanna said. “Right now, Egypt doesn’t have the capacity for Egypt.”