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Reactions: Egypt Withdraws from Syria

On Saturday, Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi cut all diplomatic ties with Syria and backed a no-fly zone over the country. Deepening sectarian tensions between his Muslim Brotherhood and Lebanese Shiite militia Hezbollah, he also called on the latter group – which just helped the Syrian army conquer rebel fighters in the border town of Qusayr – to pull back from Syria. And with the forced closing of Syria’s embassy in Cairo, hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees are left stranded without consular services. **Andrew Bowen, Middle East scholar at the James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy at Rice University****, put the latest developments in context.

Written by Karen Leigh Published on Read time Approx. 2 minutes

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Andrew Bowen: Egypt, outside of Dubai, has the largest amount of fleeing Syrian money. So there’s been that shift. From the very beginning Morsi tried to broker something with [Bashar al-Assad ally] Iran, but it fizzled. He was frustrated with that initiative – remember when he visited Tehran after the elections – and he assumed Iran was discussing a new relationship [between Iran and Egypt], he could bring up Syria, but the Iranians showed no interest.

Syria has been a concern of Morsi’s but wasn’t as big a focus [as his domestic problems]. He realizes that Egypt is in a pretty constrained position to play a regional role, with financial dependence on Qatar as a lifeline, so he’s followed what Qatar was doing. Quite frankly Qatar has more resources to devote to Syria than it does to Egypt. One concern Morsi had was, “You have a massive influx of [Syrian] people into Egypt – who takes care of them?” [The refugee situation] is impacting Egypt, but not in the degree it’s impacted Lebanon or Jordan.

In recent days, Muslim Brotherhood supporters called for support for jihad in Syria. That could be seen as the Muslim Brotherhood trying to reassert itself, in the past few months, into the chaos of the Syrian opposition. There are also tensions now between Saudi Arabia and Qatar. Saudi has been pushing the more traditionalist elements [in Syria], while Qatar, who had been taking the lead role, was pushing the Muslim Brotherhood. This shift in balance towards Saudi now taking a larger leadership role in Syria, eclipsing Qatar, has clearly put the Muslim Brotherhood in a tight position. So Egypt is facing a more fiscally constrained environment, this ongoing competition between Saudi and Qatar on the role of the Muslim Brotherhood.

And Morsi announced that any Egyptians who went to fight in Syria would not be prosecuted when they returned. This is a sign that the Muslim Brotherhood wants to support their [Brotherhood] colleagues on the ground.

Syria Deeply: What’s the relationship like between Morsi and Assad?

AB: I don’t think Assad and Morsi ever really had a relationship. Egypt has always backed the Arab League stance [against Assad]. I don’t think there could ever have been a strong Muslim Brotherhood/Egypt relationship with an Assad regime.

SD: Does the timing of this pullback have anything to do with Barack Obama’s announcement that the U.S. will arm the Syrian rebels?

AB: I don’t know if it’s necessarily that the decision to arm was the trigger for this, or that even the use of chemical weapons factored in. It could be a coincidence or a buildup of events. I do think it makes it easier for anyone in the Egyptian military to go along with it if that’s what the U.S. is doing now.

SD: What will Morsi’s decision mean for the Assad regime?

AB: Egypt’s a small player in this, and it’s just more noise of opposition for the regime. Assad knows how weak Egypt is. If this was Egypt under [Hosni] Mubarak or [Anwar] Sadat, it may have been a different case. But the Muslim Brotherhood has been opposing Assad from early on, so it’s not like this is such a big shift. It’s not like this impacts him much at all.

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