Blood brothers in arms: Sisi's support for Assad's counterrevolution

Blood brothers in arms: Sisi's support for Assad's counterrevolution
8 min read
25 Aug, 2017
Comment: From the moment Sisi seized power, Egyptian influence in Syria, and support for Assad's counterrevolution has been growing, writes Sam Hamad.
A Syrian man puts up Egyptian flag in solidarity with July 2013 coup [Getty]
"Our solidarity with the children of beloved Syria against an oppressive regime that has lost its legitimacy is a moral duty as much as a political and strategic necessity that stems from our belief in a coming future for the free proud Syria. 

"And we must all offer our complete, undiminished support for the struggle for freedom and justice in Syria, and to translate our sympathy into a clear political vision that supports [a]… transition to a democratic government reflecting the desires of the Syrian people for freedom, justice and equality."

These were the words of President Mohamed Morsi, Egypt's first and potentially last democratically elected president, on 30 August, 2012. It was part of a speech delivered not to Freedom and Justice Party (the political wing of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt) members in the safety of Egypt, but rather at a meeting of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) in Tehran. 

The speech was aimed at the Iranian regime, Assad's biggest backers and it was so controversial among these petty theocratic tyrants that in the official translation of the speech in Iranian state media, they replaced the word 'Syria' in Morsi's statement above with 'Bahrain'. 

It's no surprise then that the Egyptian counterrevolution has birthed a regime that embodies the precise opposite of the sentiments supporting freedom and liberty for Syrians struggling against Assad. From the very first moment President Field Marshal Abdel Fattah al-Sisi seized power in a vicious military coup, he completely rescinded Morsi's previous statements of support for the Syrian revolution. Why wouldn't he? 

It's no surprise that the Egyptian counterrevolution has birthed a regime that embodies the precise opposite of freedom for Syrians struggling against Assad

As a natural tyrant who thinks nothing of murdering hundreds of people in one day, disappearing, imprisoning, blacklisting, raping and torturing perhaps hundreds of thousands more, he has much in common with Bashar al-Assad. They are, in the most savage sense, blood brothers. 

In fact, it's widely believed that the plans to remove Morsi by the military and counterrevolutionary forces in Egypt were hastened after the President appeared at the Islamic Solidarity Conference and endorsed regime change against Assad.

In contrast, in the weeks and months following the coup against Morsi, Egypt's emboldened apparatuses of persecution, both the security forces and the pro-Sisi media demagogues, began to target Syrian refugees who had settled in the country under Morsi. They were accused of bringing 'their war' to Egypt, while police rounded up over 100 Syrians under the absurd charges of being in league with the Muslim Brotherhood in some grand conspiracy to destroy Umm al-Dunya

Pro-Morsi protester holds up free syrian flag
Pro-Morsi protester holds up Egyptian flag and the Free Syrian flag [Getty]

One error commentators on the so-called Arab Spring have often made, has been to imagine that some grand sectarian death struggle waged mainly between Iran and Saudi Arabia is an axiomatic point of perception for all events that unfold in the region.

While sectarianism is obviously an important factor both within local theatres of struggle and as a wider determining factor, counterrevolution is often a more adequate lens through which the motivations of different regional actors can be understood. 

Read more: Middle East sectarianism is a self-inflicted wound

Sectarianism, of the Saudi-Iranian kind, is a useful tool that leads to real horror and is attached to deep-rooted socio-historical phenomena. But it is often mutually manufactured and benefits both these entities in their quest for hegemony in their spheres of domination. 

Counterrevolution, on the other hand, is no mere tool, but rather an end in itself - one that can be summed up as the triumph of the forces of a self-interested order of tyranny against forces that seek to, in nuanced and often haphazard and contradictory ways, overturn such an order. 

Counterrevolution is often a more adequate lens through which the motivations of different regional actors can be understood

In this sense, it was a grim but unsurprising spectacle to behold when, two months after the Egyptian coup, Sisi supporters held a not-so-spontaneous demonstration, heavily covered by the pro-Sisi media, outside the headquarters of the Arab League, where they held aloft pictures of Sisi, Nasser and Assad, denouncing foreign conspiracies and regime change. 

The Sisi regime has struck the same note in its policy, overturning Morsi's support for the revolution against Assad, and embracing the Syrian dictator as an ally against 'terrorism', the catch-all term used by tyrants to describe those opposed to their rule. 

Egypt has passionately supported Russian intervention against the Syrian rebels, while there is evidence of Egyptian weapons being supplied directly to Assad's forces.  While Egypt has tried to conduct its support for Assad with some level of secrecy, top level officials of the Sisi regime have met their Baathist counterparts in Cairo, including key regime figures such as Ali Mamluk, on various occasions.

Read more: Syria spy chief in Egypt to discuss 'Assad support'

The usual line among analysts is that Sisi's support for Assad somehow runs contrary to the alleged anti-Assad stance of Saudi Arabia and, less so, the UAE and Israel, given it effectively puts Egypt on the same side as their perceived arch-nemesis Iran. But the dynamic has shifted.

It has often been assumed that Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Israel believe that Assad's downfall is a necessity to stop Iranian expansionism. Each different state has seen different degrees of truth in this, but the new consensus - buoyed by the more aggressively anti-rebel approach of the Trump administration - seems to suggest the following: The triumph of the Syrian rebels is not something that should be supported, rather the Assad regime should be courted and, ideally, co-opted to curtail Iran by playing it at its own game.

This is where Sisi's Egypt comes in. Most recently, despite the formal Arab League boycott of Assad's rump state, a delegation of Egyptian businessmen and senior commerce officials of the Sisi regime attended the trade fair in Damascus. The Assad regime reacted by heaping praise on Egypt, saying that their attendance demonstrated "our Egyptian brothers' desire to strengthen relations between our countries".

Despite the formal Arab League boycott of Assad's rump state, a delegation of Egyptian businessmen and senior commerce officials of the Sisi regime attended the trade fair in Damascus

Even more crucially, for the first time in the history of the conflict, Egypt directly intervened diplomatically - it was given 'permission' from both Saudi Arabia and Russia to organise and oversee negotiations between the regime and Syrian rebels in Homs and Damascus. 

While on the surface of things Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Israel might welcome Egypt deepening involvement in Syria on behalf of Assad as a counterbalance to Iran, it seems to be more aimed at these forces' attempts to stop Turkish and Qatari influence in Syria. 

This is of course perfectly in line with their policy around the region in opposing democratic forms of Islamism - Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Israel all welcomed and supported Sisi's coup. 

Israel has rhetorically and diplomatically supported Sisi, as well as maintaining close links regarding intelligence and security and carrying out joint operations with him against the 'Islamist insurgency' in the Sinai. The Sisi regime essentially supported Israel's last savage attack on Gaza under the rubric of it being an attack on the Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated Hamas, which feature in many far-fetched conspiracy theories contained in Sisian propaganda. 

Iran has ploughed billions into keeping Assad afloat

Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia and the UAE have ploughed billions into keeping Sisi economically afloat, while Israel has joined Egypt and the other two in supporting the anti-Muslim Brotherhood Khalifa Haftar in Libya.

All these forces must know that Egypt, though it boasts an impressive mostly US-armed army, cannot match Iran in terms of on the ground influence in Syria. Iran has ploughed billions into keeping Assad afloat and it has crafted hundreds of thousands of Shia jihadi proxies across Syria and Iraq. 

While Iran is the perfect bogeyman to justify a whole host of policies among these forces, the reality is that all of them know that an Iranian and Russian-backed Syrian rump state poses a less significant threat to them than the triumph of forces in Syria that might inspire a second wave of the Arab Spring.

It's part of the same idea that supporting tyranny leads to stability, while, as we've seen from Syria where the Islamic State group grew under Assad and in Egypt where they grew under Sisi, the opposite tends to be true.

Of course, Iran is a factor, but all these forces - the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Israel and Egypt - are joined together by attempts to curtail Qatari influence (Qatar being a supporter of democratic Islamist forces in the region, as well as resistance movements such as Hamas), such as by enforcing the blockade or censoring Al Jazeera

Egypt's growing influence in Syria is yet another indication that underneath the storm of geopolitics, Syrians, Egyptians, Palestinians, Bahrainis and all of those who live under tyranny in the region regardless of creed or sect have a common enemy in counterrevolution. 

And while Syrians continue to suffer through a counterrevolution that has morphed into a genocide, it seems the list of vultures willing to swoop in and pick the bones of their revolution continues to increase.  

Sam Hamad is an independent Scottish-Egyptian activist and writer.

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.