President Mohammed Morsi’s announcement that Egypt was severing diplomatic ties with Damascus dominated the headlines, but his participation at an Islamist-organized weekend rally in Cairo “in support of the Syrian revolution” marked an arguably even more important step, as Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood aligned itself openly with its Syrian affiliate’s struggle to bring down the Assad regime.
Morsi’s domestic opponents criticized the move as a cynical ploy to divert attention away from political and economic difficulties at home and win the approval of Salafists who are supportive of the rebellion against President Bashar Assad and his Shi’ite allies – Hezbollah and Iran. Syria’s largely Sunni opposition includes Syrian Muslim Brotherhood elements and Salafist jihadist groups, including at least one linked to al-Qaeda.
In his speech at the rally, Morsi accused Assad of “genocide,” criticized Hezbollah for intervening in support of the regime, pledged to provide aid to the rebels, and urged the international community to enforce a no-fly zone over Syria.
He also indicated that Egypt has begun arranging an urgent Arab summit on Syria.
Egyptian Salafists, some employing anti-Shi’ite rhetoric, have been leading calls for a jihad in Syria, echoing similar declarations coming from Sunni clerics in Arab Gulf states.
Up to now Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Turkey have led efforts to support the Syrian rebels, but Morsi’s statements appear designed to carve out a larger role for Egypt.
The Syrian opposition’s mainstream Free Syrian Army welcomed Egypt’s stance and urged the other so-called “Arab spring” countries, Tunisia and Libya, to follow Morsi’s “historic and courageous” example.
Morsi’s comments came shortly after the Obama administration voiced its intention to arm Syrian rebels, following its assessment that the regime has used chemical weapons in the fighting.
An Assad regime spokesman criticized Morsi’s announcements, saying they reflected “his attempt to implement the Muslim Brotherhood’s agenda.”
The spokesman, quoted by the SANA news agency, said the statements were in keeping with recent jihad fatwas issued by “the sheikhs of sedition” – a reference to Sunni clerics like Yusuf al-Qaradawi, the president of the International Union of Muslim Scholars, regarded as the Muslim Brotherhood’s spiritual leader.
The spokesman also accused Morsi of joining the American- and Israeli-led “band of conspiring” against Damascus, while expressing confidence that he did not speak for “the brotherly Egyptian people.”
In a separate statement, Assad’s Ba’ath Party said Morsi was attempting to “please Washington” by throwing in his lot with the Syrian opposition.