A message of dissatisfaction
Egypt withdrew its ambassador from Damascus this week, increasing the Syrian regime's isolation, writes Doaa El-Bey
Egypt's announcement earlier this week that it would be withdrawing its ambassador from Damascus has added to the isolation of the Syrian regime, putting further pressure on Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad to step down from leading the country.
The move by Egypt, home to the headquarters of the Arab League in Cairo, was seen as having special weight because of the special relationship that has existed between the two countries since the 1960s, when Egypt and Syria were part of a single union and shared the same flag from 1958 to 1961.
Bassam Ishaq, a Syrian human-rights activist in Egypt, said the step had come as a great boost to the morale of the Syrian people and a slap in the face to the regime.
"Egypt has a very special status for Syrians. We regard Egypt as the most important Arab state. This step is a strong message to the regime that Egypt stands by the Syrian people rather than with the Syrian regime," Ishaq told Al-Ahram Weekly.
Thaer Al-Nashef, a Syrian writer in Egypt, said the step had come in reaction to the continuing escalation of violence by the Al-Assad regime, which had refused to listen to Arab and international calls to halt the violence.
There had been calls at the Arab League meeting two months ago for Arab countries to withdraw their ambassadors from Syria and expel Syrian ambassadors from their capitals. "Egypt clearly believes that because of the bloodbath in Syria it is appropriate for it to withdraw its ambassador," Al-Nashef said in an interview with the Weekly.
Egyptian Foreign Minister Mohamed Amr decided during a meeting with Egypt's Ambassador to Syria Shukri Ismail on Sunday at the Foreign Ministry in Cairo to instruct Ismail not to return to the Syrian capital until further notice.
In reaction, Syria withdrew its ambassador Youssef Ahmed from Cairo, though Al-Nashef said that the Syrian regime's ambassadors had played little role internationally for quite some time.
The Egyptian move came after Tunisia, Libya, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and other Arab and European nations had already reduced diplomatic ties with Damascus.
Foreign Ministry spokesman Amr Roshdi told reporters on Sunday that the decision to recall the ambassador sent "a message of Egypt's dissatisfaction with the situation in Syria".
He said that Egypt would keep its staff at the embassy in Damascus and that the move to downgrade the Egyptian presence in Syria had been taken "in the interests of the Syrian people". Egyptian public opinion had also been taken into account when making the decision, Roshdi said.
The Syrian embassy in Cairo has been attacked twice, and in one instance part of the embassy was set on fire. Last Friday, 2,000 protesters rallied outside the embassy to demand the authorities expel the country's ambassador from Egypt because of the ongoing crackdown against the demonstrations in Syria.
In a parallel development, tomorrow, Friday, 24 February, will see the inaugural meeting of the Friends of Syria group in Tunis, which is expected to explore ways to further isolate the Al-Assad regime and to end the violence in Syria.
The meeting will bring together the US and European and Arab states working to end the plight of the Syrian people.
The meeting was called following Russia and China's veto of a Western and Arab attempt to pass a UN Security Council resolution putting pressure on Al-Assad to step down from office.
Al-Nashef said there were hopes that the Tunis meeting would put further pressure on Al-Assad to step down.
"It is an attempt by the friends of the Syrian people to form an international front against Al-Assad and increase his isolation. It also aims to draw attention to the humanitarian situation in Syria, especially during this cold winter," he said.
Ishaq said that the meeting sent a message to Russia and China that they could not support the Syrian regime indefinitely. He said he hoped the meeting would facilitate support to the Syrian people, especially of food and medicine.
The Arab League has been at the forefront of regional efforts to end 11 months of bloodshed in Syria, earlier reaching an agreement designed to lead to an easing of the tensions and an opening of the dialogue between the regime and the opposition.
The Al-Assad regime accepted this agreement last December, following which the League sent monitors to Syria to check whether the regime was complying with it. When it became clear that the regime was not respecting the terms of the agreement and the killings were continuing, the League pulled out the observers last month.
Earlier this month, the Arab League discussed reviving the observer mission, this time expanding it to include monitors from non-Arab Muslim nations and the United Nations.
However, it was thought that the Syrian regime would be unlikely to accept a new monitoring team, and this month witnessed an unprecedented escalation of the violence in Syria, especially in the town of Homs.
Inspired by the Arab Spring in Tunisia and Egypt, the Syrian uprising began last March with peaceful protests in a number of the country's poorer areas. As these were suppressed by the regime's security forces, the protests grew, escalating into increasing confrontation with the regime.
Syria now faces mounting international condemnation over its crackdown on the protesters, including harsh sanctions and political isolation.