What Does the Military Coup in Egypt Mean for Syria?
The toppling of Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi in a military coup is a critical governmental changeover with the capability to have a direct impact on the ongoing civil war in Syria.
Although Egypt has been dealing with the post-Hosni Mubarak internal political turmoil, it is capable of changing regional balances through its historical role, military capacity and leading power over the people of the Arab world.
One should not ignore the regional dimension of the military coup in addition to its causes stemming from Egypt's internal politics. In fact, according to some comments, the strong attitude that the Morsi administration adopted on Syria in recent times was one of the most important reasons for the coup. Hence, the Syria issue is both a reason for the coup and also an issue to be directly affected by the consequences of the coup. In the great scheme of things, the military coup might be assessed as a gain for the Syrian regime and as loss of power for the Syrian opposition. This point of view was also reflected in the statements of officials from both parties.
The first reaction from the Syrian government to the military coup in Egypt was from President Bashar al-Assad, describing the fall of Morsi as the failure of political Islam. In an interview with the official media organ of the country, he stated that “the Arab identity is back on the right track after the fall of organizations like the Muslim Brotherhood which manipulate religion.” The Assad regime has perceived and introduced the uprising in Syria as an attempt of political Islamists to topple the regime by using terrorism as a means, rather than as a “demand for freedom and democracy” since the very beginning.
The Baath regime, which has the ideology of secular Arab nationalism, has perceived political Islam growing stronger after the popular uprisings in the Middle East as a threat. Considering that the most organized movement within the Syrian opposition is the Syrian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, the fact that the Muslim Brotherhood came to power in Egypt after the fall of Mubarak was considered a threat. The foreign policy of the Morsi administration and its attitude towards Syria confirmed the concerns of the Assad administration.
According to some comments from the West and the Middle East, it has been asserted that one of the reasons underlying the Egyptian army staging the coup was that “Morsi and his circle forced the Egyptian army to adopt a stronger attitude towards the Syrian regime.” Morsi began to pursue a more aggressive approach in foreign policy in June, and firstly threatened Ethiopia due to the problems related to the use of the waters of the River Nile. He then took a more radical decision and declared that he had cut off all diplomatic relations with Syria.
Attending the conference in "support of the Syrian uprising" held in Cairo, Morsi stated in his speech that the Syrian Embassy in Cairo would be shut and Egypt's representative withdrawn from Damascus, and demanded the withdrawal of Hezbollah from Syria, which is fighting alongside the Syrian army.
Above all, he called on the UN to impose a no-fly zone over Syria by bringing forward a military solution for Syria, supported by a limited number of countries. Hence, right before the coup, Morsi had already begun to adopt a strong attitude against the regime in foreign policy and especially on Syria. In response to Morsi's attitude, the Syrian administration said that Egypt had decided to cut diplomatic ties with the country and accused Morsi of joining a US-Israeli conspiracy against Syria.
Meanwhile, the news that religious leaders supporting Morsi had called for “jihad in Syria” in the demonstrations staged in Egypt and that the Egyptian army had begun to worry due to the possibility that Morsi could order the army to deploy against Syria were reflected in the press.
A report published by the International Crisis Group based on the statements of an Egyptian senior army official asserts that the Egyptian army was not comfortable with the anti-Syria protests staged in Cairo in an environment of political conflict in the country, and from the point of view of the army, Morsi encouraging Egyptians to fight abroad had crossed a national security red line.
In the speeches Morsi made before the coup, he stated that the Egyptian army would support the Syrian opposition until the Syrian people take their rights back and those rights are guaranteed by an elected leader, which pleased the Syrian opposition to a great extent. Also, the Free Syrian Army (FSA) said that it supported Egypt's decision to cut off diplomatic relations with Syria, and that Egypt was taking back its historical and bold position through Syria conferences held in Cairo and through the participation of officials.
Hence, in such an environment, the collapse of the Morsi administration is considered an opportunity for the Syrian regime and a loss of support for the opposition. One of the first decisions taken by the military government in Egypt was to establish diplomatic relations with Syria and to open an embassy in the country. Even this decision shows the reason why the coup pleased the Assad regime. Furthermore, the coup and conflicts that occurred afterwards showed and reassured the Syrian regime of their stance that the uprisings in the region were not legitimate. The argument that uprisings do not bring democracy but instability to countries can now be argued more strongly.
On the other hand, the Syrian opposition adopted a critical approach towards the military coup in Egypt. Senior officials in Syrian opposition said that the pro-coup groups in Egypt are against the Syrian revolution and thus will be negatively affected by the coup. Also, the Syrian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood has come to the fore as the most organized group within the Syrian National Coalition. The movement, which is the Syrian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, considered the Morsi government in Egypt as an opportunity to boost its power and to receive the support of Egypt.
The strong attitude adopted by Egypt against the Syrian regime was of critical importance not only for the Muslim Brotherhood in Syria but also for the whole Syrian opposition. The change of Egypt's position in the post-coup period will be inevitable, and it is likely that a more passive or objective approach will be pursued.
Also, it was alleged that the Syrian opposition played a role in the conflicts that occurred in Egypt right after the coup, and 200 Syrian opponents close to the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt were arrested for provoking the uprisings.
This is the most important indicator that the Syrian opposition's realm of activity in Egypt has been narrowed down, and is growing narrower.