On Saturday, Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi severed diplomatic ties with the Syrian government and called for the implementation of a no-fly zone over the war torn country. Given the fact that Morsi publically denounced the murderous Al-Assad regime in a speech at the Non-Aligned Meeting in Tehran last August (prompting the Syrian delegation to walk out) the move should not come as a particularly big surprise.
Why ties were severed and when they were severed can be explained by a confluence of historical events and recent pressures. Avoiding the sort of reductive analysis that has come to characterize writing on the Syrian civil war will require that we take these overlapping, and mutually reinforcing, factors into account.
1. Morsi and the Syrian Rebels Share Ties Via the Arab Spring:
Mohammed Morsi is Egypt's first elected president — whisked into power by the democratic opening produced by the Arab Spring revolts. It's certainly true that Morsi's brief tenure as president has been riddled by problematic policies and executive decisions that have, to an extent, betrayed the spirit of the regional revolutions.
Nevertheless, it is still plausible that Morsi, his party, and large swathes of the Egyptian public that partook in the revolution against Hosni Mubarak's government feel some degree of solidarity with those struggling against dictatorships across the Arab World. The new governments of Tunisia and Libya expressed this type of sympathy when they cut ties with Assad's regime over a year ago.
And while a Pew Public opinion poll from May 2013 reveals that close to 60% of Egyptians oppose Arab and Western governments sending arms and military supplies to anti-government groups in Syria, the same poll also indicates that a whopping 81% of Egyptians have unfavorable views of Assad (only 11% have favorable views of the autocrat). Opinions on the rebels are not included in the poll, and it's unlikely that approval for either side is a zero-sum game. Therefore, the poll should be taken with a grain of salt. Nevertheless, it is illustrative of an important facet of Egyptian public opinion on the conflict.
2. Egypt is Still a U.S. Client State:
Like the Iranian Revolution in 1979, the 2011 Egyptian Revolution ended with the ouster of a secular U.S.-backed autocrat. Unlike the Iranian Revolution, which sullied ties between the U.S. and Iran over the long term, the Egyptian Revolution left intact the patron-client relationship established between the U.S. and Egypt in the wake of the 1978 Camp David Accords.
Egypt is still the second largest recipient of U.S. foreign aid after Israel (excluding aid doled out in relation to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan). It continues to receive roughly $1.3 billion in military aid from the U.S. annually, and is hoping for U.S. support for a substantial IMF loan. The fact that the Obama administration shares a favorable opinion of the rebels with Morsi's government doubtlessly made severing ties easier. Both patron and client have shared interests.
Disclosures by great powers, like the one made by the Obama administration last Thursday indicating that America would start to provide Syrian revolutionaries with selected weaponry, have some heft on the international stage. Disclosures by great powers have even more heft within said powers' respective spheres of influence. It's worth noting that Morsi's announcement on Syria came just two days after Obama’s.
It’s also worth noting here that U.S.-aligned states like Qatar may be adding external pressure. The aforementioned Gulf state did just lend $3 billion to Egypt. It's true that the Gulf is not the U.S., but it’s also no secret that both the US and Gulf governments have long seen their interests as enmeshed and acted accordingly. So, the reality of Gulf aid to Egypt reinforces the argument outlined above.
3. Al-Assad and the Muslim Brotherhood Hate Each Other:
Barring its somewhat awkward, and now effectively defunct, relationship with Hamas, the Assad regime has long had a fraught relationship with the Muslim Brotherhood. In 1976 a militant wing of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood fed up with the Baathist regime of Bashar Al-Assad's father Hafez took up arms against the government.
The rebellion escalated over the years, including assassination campaigns against an array of regime figures. At its peak, Hafez himself was targeted, prompting the regime to carry out a vengeful massacre of hundreds of prisoners at Tadmour Prison near Homs. The uprising ended in 1982 when Hafez, no less ruthless than his son, ordered the shelling of Hama. The indiscriminate attack, which lasted 27 days and is estimated to have killed tens of thousands, was one of the most brutal episodes in modern Middle Eastern history.
The Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood is not the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, but the sister organizations have an affinity with one another. Both groups have also been subject to decades of oppression by authoritarian regimes.
4. Hezbollah Invaded Syria a Few Weeks Ago:
It's hardly a secret that in recent months the conflict in Syria has a taken a turn towards overt sectarianism, arguably to the benefit of the Assad regime. But the sectarian energies unleashed by the civil war escalated a month ago when Hassan Nasrallah, Hezbollah's secretary general, very publicly announced the Lebanese Shiite militia’s decision to intervene on the side of the Assad regime. Indeed, the Khomeinist group conspicuously played a part in the successful siege of the Syrian city of Qusair, which ended just over a week ago.
Hezbollah, with its close links to Iran, formidable military force, and long history of terror and guerilla warfare is, perhaps, the premier Shiite militia in the Arab world. The group's choice to play counter-revolutionary against a now largely Sunni rebellion is bound to have a profound effect on the sectarian dynamic of the Syrian civil war.
Morsi did specifically call for Hezbollah to withdraw from Syria in his announcement. Egypt is a largely Sunni Muslim country with a sizeable Coptic Christian minority. Sectarian political alignments are not predetermined by demographics (is predominately Sunni Muslim Indonesia particularly invested in the conflict?), but the Egyptian revolution has seen some Sunni Islamist parties that tow a noticeably harder line than the Muslim Brotherhood, like the Al-Nour party, gain political power. This probably has some effect on Morsi's calculus.
And even if sectarian considerations are not affecting Morsi’s decision, Hezbollah's intervention, given the group's size and stature, is a serious escalation of the conflict in Syria. It was bound to draw attention.
5. Morsi's Got Domestic Problems:
Last but not least, a more cynical variable deserves consideration. As previously alluded to, Morsi has various domestic problems, from Egypt's precarious economic predicament to public distrust generated by some of his less-than-democratic gestures since taking office. A significant youth movement called Tamarod (Rebellion) is calling for early presidential elections and has planned nationwide protests for the June 30. Foreign affairs can be a good distraction.