Saturday,21 October, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1153, 20 - 26 June 2013
Saturday,21 October, 2017
Issue 1153, 20 - 26 June 2013

Ahram Weekly

Morsi ups the ante

Will Egypt be dragged into a religious discourse that boosts the escalating Sunni-Shia divide in Syria and the region? Gihan Shahine looks for answers

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eg51
Al-Ahram Weekly

The significance of Saturday’s Islamist-organised rally of around 20,000 Egyptians, mostly Islamist supporters of President Mohamed Morsi, may perhaps go beyond its announced target of showing solidarity with the Syrian people against their President Bashar Al-Assad.
The Islamist-organised rally, in which Morsi announced severing diplomatic relations with the Syrian regime and called upon the international community to impose a no-fly zone on Syria, came on the heels of yet another conference that Cairo hosted last Thursday.
The conference, which joined 70 Sunni clerics from around the Islamic world, ended with a document calling upon Sunni Muslims from around the world to go for jihad against the “sectarian” Syrian regime as “a religious duty” — a statement that Al-Azhar refused to sign.
A Friday sermon by renowned Saudi preacher Mohamed Al-Oreifi then ensued, again calling for jihad against the Syrian regime and the “infidel” Shia in the Old Cairo historic mosque of Amr Ibn Al-Aas. The sermon was followed by a massive rally of Islamists in front of the mosque in support of the Syrian people.
“We decided today to entirely break off relations with Syria and with the current Syrian regime,” Morsi told the rally, adding that he had ordered the closure of the Syrian embassy in Cairo and the withdrawal of the Egyptian ambassador from Damascus.
Morsi said he was organising an urgent summit of Arab and other Islamic states to discuss the situation in Syria. He reiterated the support of the Egyptian people “for the struggle of the Syrian people, materially and morally, and Egypt, its nation, leadership and army, will not abandon the Syrian people until they achieves their rights and dignity.”
Morsi’s words were met with applause from the Islamist audience that packed the 20,000-seat stadium and chanted slogans like “we love you Morsi.” Morsi waved Syrian and Egyptian flags as he entered the auditorium and the crowd chanted, “From the free revolutionaries of Egypt: We will stamp on you, Bashar!”
The very fact that the events came after more than two years of massacres in Syria that have already claimed the lives of more than 90,000 people immediately cast a shadow on the real intention behind the events. The fact that the three-day events coincided with the US announcement that it would arm anti-Al-Assad rebels has also raised suspicions that these events were politically rather than religiously motivated.
The opposition was thus quick to slam the stadium rally as a PR campaign meant to show support for Morsi — rather than against the Syrian regime — and perhaps boost his heavily criticised image on the domestic and international levels.
Critics suggested that the stadium rally was no more than a display of Islamist muscle vis-à-vis the secular and liberal opposition before the massive protests the opposition plans to launch on 30 June, the anniversary of Morsi’s coming to office.
The protests, which aim to oust Egypt’s first president-elect, are also part of a grassroots campaign that claims to have collected 15 million signatures of no-confidence in the president and calling for early presidential elections.
The fact that the rally ended with Morsi warning that he will “decisively stop” the “remnants of the old regime from dragging the country into a spiral of chaos and violence” on 30 June perhaps corroborated speculation that the event was organised to deliver a message of intimidation to dissidents.
“There is no place for troublemakers who threaten the nation’s security and stability,” Morsi said, stressing that he did not mean the opposition or the genuinely peaceful revolutionary youths of the 25 January Revolution.
Many party leaders insisted that the event was “a futile attempt to deflect public attention from domestic woes, which run deeper than can be distracted from with outside issues”, and an attempt to “intimidate the opposition”.
Political analyst Ammar Ali Hassan said “cutting diplomatic ties would not actually put any pressure on Syria, which only cares about its allies in Iran, Russia and Hizbullah.” Egypt, according to Hassan, has no real cards to play.
Many also suspected that the president was trying to win back the support of Salafis before the 30 June protests. The hosting of prominent Salafi Sheikh Mohamed Hassan, who gave a speech at the rally, may have been a case in point.
The Salafis, who have a hardline stance against the Shia, have had tense relations with Egypt’s ruling Muslim Brotherhood over recent government announcements that Egypt would allow Iranian tourists into the country. The Salafist Nour Party, perhaps the staunchest of Salafist critics of the Brotherhood, refused to attend the event.
Ehab Shiha, head of the Salafist Asala Party, said that Morsi’s statements “came in response to Islamist pressures that he make clear his stance towards the Syrian crisis.” Shiha explained on his Facebook account that the president had earlier met with Islamist forces to explain the Egyptian position towards the Syrian regime and that the stadium rally was organised when the Islamists asked him to announce his position to the world.
Shiha also said he was offended by claims that “revered clerics, who have always been known for their piety and independence, called for jihad in Syria in Cairo last Thursday to serve US plans in the region.”
Yet, seeing the stadium rally in the limited context of a PR campaign would be missing the point. The three-day event should be seen in the larger context of the Sunni-Shia conflict in the region.
The Syrian uprising that broke out in March 2011 has gradually developed into a bloody civil war that has not only claimed the lives of at least 90,000 people, but has also grown sectarian in nature.
The vast majority of the rebels belong to the Sunni Al-Nusra Front, which reportedly has links with Al-Qaeda, and they are fighting to overthrow Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad who belongs to the Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shia Islam.
The intervention of Lebanon’s Iran-backed Shia movement Hizbullah in Syria has helped Al-Assad’s troops to victory over the rebels in the central Syrian town of Qusair, further boosting the sectarian divide in the region.
Hizbullah’s Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah has recently announced that his movement has been fighting alongside Al-Assad’s forces and that it would continue to do so. The statement probably irritated many Sunni Gulf countries, particularly Saudi Arabia and Qatar, which are traditionally hostile to the Syrian regime as well as to Lebanon’s Hizbullah and Iran, which also said it would send 4,000 troops to aid Al-Assad forces in Syria.
Nasrallah insisted his group had intervened in Syria for “existential” and not “sectarian” reasons, claiming that Al-Nusra Front rebels were “jihadist extremists” who posed existential threats not only to the movement, but also to Lebanon as a whole.
But many Sunni clerics remained unconvinced. Influential Qatari-based Egyptian Sheikh Youssef Al-Qaradawi recently called upon every “Sunni Muslim capable of fighting to support the rebels”. Al-Qaradawi explained to a recent rally in Qatar that fighting alongside the rebels was a religious obligation, on the grounds that Iran and Hizbullah, whom he called the party of Satan, were “supporting Al-Assad with the aim of exterminating Sunni Muslims.”
Al-Qaradawi’s speech came in response to reports that the Syrian town of Qusair, which was under the control of the rebels, had been blockaded by government forces with the help of Hizbullah fighters and that whole families had allegedly been killed while the wounded were left to bleed as a result of the blockade. Those who attempted to flee were reportedly killed at the hands of Al-Assad’s and Hizbullah’s fighters.
“Iran is pushing forward with arms and men, so why do we stand idly by,” Al-Qaradawi asked, saying that he had changed his position on the Shia when he found that “the Iranians, especially the hardliners, wanted to devour the Sunnis.”
Many analysts, however, have denounced this sectarian discourse on the grounds that it has dwarfed the Syrian popular uprising against the regime of Al-Assad, turning it into ugly sectarian strife and providing fuel for the sectarian divide in the region. This, the consensus says, would end up serving the interests of the US and Israeli plans to divide the region.
In the meantime, the fact that there have been sudden calls for holy war in Syria and that these have coincided with the US decision to arm the anti-Al-Assad Sunni rebels has cast shadows on the three-day Cairo events in solidarity with the Syrian people.
Many analysts suspect that cutting diplomatic relations with the Syrian regime, while maintaining diplomatic ties with Israel, implies that Morsi, already under fire in his homeland, is attempting to please, and perhaps seek the support of, Arab Gulf countries and the United States, which have traditionally been hostile to the Syrian regime.
Hosting a conference of Gulf Sunni clerics in Cairo has also been seen in that same context.
Critics charge that the clerics were dragged into the calls for jihad in order to provide a religious blanket for US intervention in favour of the Sunni rebels, this, many analysts warning, repeating the scenario that had earlier been played out in Iraq and Afghanistan and paving the way to a new US map of the Middle East.
That, at least, was the view of the Syrian government, which was quick to slam Morsi’s “irresponsible” decision as part of “a conspiracy led by the United States and Israel against Syria”, according to a Syrian government official on Sunday.
The official also claimed that Morsi had announced the cut in ties in order to distract the attention of his people from domestic crises and that his call for a no-fly zone was a violation of Syrian sovereignty and served the goals of Israel and the United States.
The Egyptian opposition also suspected that the three-day events were a further sign that Morsi’s government had “adopted the American position” on the Syrian conflict, according to Gamal Salama, head of the political science department at Suez Canal University.
Many speculate that Morsi could only stretch his muscles against Syria when he found that the US was taking a similar stance and that such a step would also please Washington.
Morsi called on the international community to enforce a no-fly zone over Syria, as NATO did during the uprising against the late Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, to stop the Syrian regime’s air strikes on civilians.
But that would require the destruction of Syria’s Russian-built air defences, which is probably why the White House has been considering implementing a no-fly zone over Syria without actually doing so.
In the meantime, Morsi condemned the intervention of the Iran-backed Hizbullah in Syria’s ongoing civil war.
“Hizbullah must leave Syria. These are serious words. There is no place for Hizbullah in Syria,” Morsi told the Cairo stadium rally. In attempts to perhaps deflect sectarian dimensions to his statement, Morsi further explained that “Egypt stood by the Lebanese people and Hizbullah against the [Israeli] attack in 2006, and today we stand against Hizbullah for Syria.”
The Israeli press seemed to welcome Morsi’s statements, which were described by the Israeli Maarif newspaper as delivering a “serious blow” to the Syrian regime. The Times of Israel also seemed pleased with Egypt’s policy shift towards Hizbullah.
“[Egypt’s] support for the Lebanon-based terror group Hizbullah would also be withdrawn… marking a policy shift for Cairo, which backed the organisation against Israel in the second Lebanon war seven years ago,” it wrote.
Egypt is mostly Sunni Muslim, as are the vast majority of the Syrian rebels, but never in its history has the country been party to the Sunni-Shia divide.
The Sunni world’s most prestigious and oldest university, Al-Azhar, according to the mufti of the republic’s advisor Ibrahim Negm, already teaches one of the Shia schools, al-ithna ashar, to which he said belonged most of the world’s Shia population. The university had always promoted dialogue with Shia Muslims, he added.
“We believe that the Shia are basically Muslims who acknowledge the Sunni schools and even engage in dialogue with them. Only an extremist deviant few reject the Sunni schools and insult the Prophet’s wife and companions,” Negm explained.
Negm said Al-Azhar had not participated in the three-day events in support of the Syrian uprising, and it had refused to sign the document calling for jihad in Syria on the grounds that the events “were politically, rather than religiously, motivated”.
“The document adopted a sectarian tone that almost provided legitimacy to what [the militant] Al-Qaeda group [which is believed to have links with the Al-Nusra Front rebels] is doing in Syria,” Negm explained, adding that the fact that the event was “hosted in Cairo raises a lot of concerns”.
Negm told Al-Ahram Weekly that “jihad becomes a religious duty only when it is a fight between right and wrong, but in the Syrian case things are too complicated to be seen in black and white.”
“We are totally in support of the Syrian people, and we definitely condemn the bloodshed of innocent people, but we believe the matter cannot be resolved through an emotional religious discourse, which, laced with verses from the Holy Quran, would only complicate matters and lead to more bloodshed and civil strife that would not end in the interests of the Syrian people,” Negm elaborated.
An outstanding Al-Azhar scholar, who spoke to the Weekly on condition of anonymity, said that jihad could only be a religious duty when “people are capable of it. “Egyptians are bogged down in poverty and endless economic and political woes. How can you ask them to go and fight when their domestic battles are far from over,” the sheikh asked in a sarcastic tone.
Prominent columnist Fahmy Howeidy explained that by cutting relations with the Syrian regime, Egypt would not only give a further boost to the region’s sectarian divide but would also give justification to Al-Assad’s allies, especially Iran and Hizbullah, to send more troops and continue the fighting.
In the meantime, according to Howeidy, the calls for jihad would also consolidate, rather than shake, the position of Al-Assad, who would go on arguing that if his regime falls, the only alternative would be for Syria to be turned into another Afghanistan.
Today’s most-popular conspiracy theory suggests that the US has adapted its policies in such a way as to support the rise of political Islam in the Middle East, perhaps in the hope of creating deep divides and sectarian rifts that would ultimately serve Western colonial interests in the region.
Activist and Cairo media professor Mahmoud Khalil is among those who speculate that “the United States has tactically allowed the Brotherhood to come to power in order to play the Islamist groups off against each other and to further weaken and divide the Arab world on sectarian and ideological grounds.”
Many analysts agree, referring to the examples of Palestine and Sudan as cases where the West has already played a role in bringing about divisions and disharmony, whether between the West Bank and Gaza, or, in the case of Sudan, Darfour and South Sudan.
“Washington’s decision to arm Syria’s Sunni Muslim rebels has plunged America into the great Sunni-Shia conflict of the Islamic Middle East, entering a struggle that now dwarfs the Arab revolutions which overthrew dictatorships across the region,” wrote Robert Fisk in the British Independent newspaper. “For the first time, all of America’s ‘friends’ in the region are Sunni Muslims, and all of its enemies are Shias.”
But the question of whether Egypt, now under Brotherhood leadership, could ultimately be dragged into that Sunni-Shia quagmire is irking many. Political analyst Ammar Ali Hassan told Al-Arabiya that if Egypt “falls into the trap of opening the door to jihad in Syria, it will actually be adding fuel to the sectarian divides in the region”.
However, military sources told the Egyptian press on Sunday that Egypt did not plan to send any troops to aid the Syrian opposition and that all the calls for military support for jihad in Syria were “illogical” and “lacking perspective”.
“Egypt will not be dragged into the quagmire of civil strife in Syria,” said a military source.
Morsi also made no suggestion that Egypt would get involved in the fighting in Syria. But his advisor on foreign affairs, Khaled Al-Kazzaz, said earlier last week that “the government was not trying to stop Egyptians from volunteering in Syria, mostly in relief work.”
“The right of travel or the freedom of travel or of taking certain positions is open to all Egyptians,” Al-Kazzaz told reporters. “But Egypt believes the conflict will have to be resolved politically.”
It was clear from Morsi’s speech that Egypt would stop short of sending money to the rebels, perhaps sending humanitarian relief instead to the war-torn country. There was no mention that Egypt, already bogged down in poverty and economic woes, would provide arms to the Syrian rebels.
On the rhetorical level, Morsi also seemed keen to steer clear of using sectarian language. He did not make any direct mention of the word “Shias” or to “Iran” and stopped short of accusing “states in the region [an indirect reference to Iran] of supporting a campaign of extermination and organised ethnic cleansing in Syria.”
Morsi also reiterated his support for a “united Syria” and for the “unity of the Syrian soil and the Syrian population, with all its components.”
But a Salafi cleric who spoke before Morsi described the Shiites as “heretics”, “infidels” and “oppressors”. In his Cairo Friday sermon, Al-Oreifi similarly called upon the Syrian rebels not to be “easy prey in the mouth of the villainous regime and its infidel supporters of the Shia Hizbullah.”
“Consider that [Syrian-massacred] child to be your son and that girl to be your sister and that mother to be your mother,” Al-Oreifi told worshippers, in reference to the ordeal of the Syrian people. “Where is the zeal to give victory to the Muslims? What rulers are going to tell our Lord if He asks them about a bereaved woman? What will they tell Him on the Day of Judgement?”
The now religiously-tinted conflict in Syria has already drawn Sunni volunteers from several Arab countries to join the Sunni rebels, while the Shias of Iraq have reportedly travelled to support Al-Assad. Some Lebanese Sunnis have reportedly crossed into Syria to fight alongside the Sunni rebels.
Egypt has also seen the exodus of many volunteers who have traveled over the past year to join the rebel ranks and provide assistance to the Syrian people.
The Salafist Nour Party has already been sending volunteers as part of a relief campaign named “One Nation” that has been ongoing for a year-and-a-half. Salafi revolutionary activist and businessman Mahmoud Al-Sayed told the Weekly that at least 20 of his Islamist friends and liberal acquaintances had already gone to jihad in Syria.
“Most of them went to deliver relief aid and some are fighting with the rebels and are still there,” Al-Sayed said. He said he wished to join them, but could not for financial and personal reasons.  
Al-Sayed does not believe that joining the ranks of the mostly Sunni Syrian rebels would fuel sectarianism in the region.
“Those who go to fight or provide aid are actually volunteering in support of the Syrian uprising against a despotic regime. They are helping those who are crushed and killed every day at the hands of Al-Assad’s troops and his aides, who are left homeless without food or shelter, not because they are Sunni or Shia, but because they are oppressed and crushed,” Al-Sayed insisted.
Al-Sayed would “of course not condone the killing of Shias”, but he insisted that “it is clear that civilians and rebels are being killed at the hands of the regime, not the reverse.”

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