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Egyptian Support for Syrian Rebels Still Words Over Action

  • Elizabeth Arrott

Egypt has further aligned itself with those trying to overthrow Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. It remains unclear, though, how far Egypt will back its words with action.

Syria's civil war has increasingly drawn in outsiders, from individual fighters to regional and international powers lining up on opposing sides. Egypt recently has stepped up its role, but the message appears mixed.

President Mohamed Morsi has severed Egypt's already tenuous ties with Syria's government, a move denounced by Syrian officials as influenced by the United States and Israel.

Morsi also lashed out at intervention by Lebanon's Hezbollah fighters on the side of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Speaking at a rally Saturday, he said Hezbollah must leave, adding “there is no space or place for Hezbollah in Syria.”

The open presence of the Shi'ite militant group in Syria has highlighted the conflict's increasingly sectarian nature.

Leading Sunni clerics meeting in Cairo last week denounced the presence of those they call “rejectionists.” And influential Egyptian Sheikh Youssef al Qaradawi urged Sunnis to wage jihad in Syria.

An aide to Morsi said Egyptians are free to fight in Syria. Not all Islamist politicians in this predominantly Sunni country, however, agree that jihad is the answer.

Mohamed Soudan, foreign secretary of the Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party [FJP], said, “They want to save the souls of the Muslims. But they should know that the other side is Muslim. So Muslims are killing each other,” said Soudan.

Yet Morsi gave a stark warning. He said “the Syrian people are facing a campaign of extermination and planned ethnic cleansing,” which he argued was “fed by regional and international states who do not care for the Syrian citizen."

It was a reference widely perceived to include Shi'ite Iran and the Syrian government's backers in Moscow, which raised questions about Morsi's call for a United Nations-backed no-fly zone. Veto-wielding Russia has made clear it would block such a move.

Morsi, facing growing opposition at home, including planned demonstrations at the end of the month, has shifted his government's focus to international events in recent weeks, now with Syria, earlier with Ethiopia and its controversial dam project on the Nile.

In his speech at the rally, though, the Egyptian leader gave no indication his government would send arms, let alone military personnel, to Syria, calling instead for talks.

“The solution is to sit down, to force Iran to let Bashar [al-Assad] sit down to see a safe exit with his people and to save the Syrian people, not to escalate the war. We will lose more and more souls from both sides,” said the FJP's Mohamed Soudan.

Calls for negotiations are almost as old as the war itself, now in its third year. Meanwhile, the rhetoric and acts of sectarianism grow, while solutions remain in short supply.
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