Egypt asserts an old pan-Arab principle to deal with Syria
Observers of Egyptian diplomacy did a double-take last week when they heard Esmat Seif Al Dowla, an aide to President Mohammed Morsi, say that Egypt supports Arab military intervention in Syria. Asked about the Emir of Qatar's speech at the UN General Assembly, in which regional intervention to depose President Bashar Al Assad was advocated, Mr Al Dowla said: "Egypt is ready to take part in the Arab intervention operation, on the condition that this not be used as a pretext for foreign intervention in Syria."
Unpacking this statement - which has since been denied by the president's primary spokesman, Yasser Ali - is an exercise on multiple levels. First, there is the surprise that Mr Morsi, who has made it clear that he opposes military intervention in Syria, might have suddenly changed his mind. Secondly, there is the puzzling idea of an Arab intervention not being a foreign one - an echo of pan-Arab times past, perhaps.
It was most probably a rookie mistake, and probably not one worth dwelling over - even if Mr Al Dowla keeps making statements at odds with official policy, such as that Egypt intends to renegotiate the terms of its peace treaty with Israel (once again the main presidential spokesman had to deny this). One might suggest that the new president's staff could use help from persons with more experience in the great diplomatic art of talking while saying nothing, or at least nothing that might be interpreted as putting the country on a warpath or rough diplomatic waters.
Still, the idea of an Arab intervention - whether Qatar's widely derided fantasy that it can just summon an intervention force or the new Egyptian initiative to engage Iran over Syria - does prompt the question of why Mr Morsi decided to make Syria the centrepiece of his early foreign policy.
The main reason appears to be that it is the right thing to do, with all signs pointing to most Egyptians being horrified at the events in Syria, in agreement that Mr Al Assad should step down and that this goal should be pursued politically rather than militarily. I've heard veteran Egyptian diplomats who are no fans of the Muslim Brotherhood or Mr Morsi praise the initiative.
It's not just the moral equation. Part of the enthusiasm for Mr Morsi's plan comes from that, no matter who is in power, Egyptians love to see their country at the centre of regional affairs and hate being excluded. A previous (failed) effort at a negotiated solution last June, dubbed the Geneva initiative, had the Egyptians fuming at not being consulted.
The current initiative, whether it works or not, whether other countries like it or not, has the great merit, from Cairo's perspective, of having been branded the "Egyptian initiative". The US wavers between private scepticism and open hostility to having anyone talk to Iran, while most Europeans are cautiously positive simply because it's at least something.
The attitude appears to be that there is nothing to lose from the initiative, and this is fair enough, even if some countries might be leery of engaging Iran - or unwilling to believe that Tehran would ever be ready to drop its most important, and indeed perhaps only, state ally. But, with few options short of military intervention or ignoring the issue, and languid UN-led shuttle diplomacy, it offers hope for a new track. Never mind that the Saudis have not bothered to show up at the meetings.
The Egyptian initiative makes the most sense if you believe, as many observers do, that the fall of the Assad regime will come sooner or later. Only then will there be an opportunity to engage Iran, essentially on the terms on which it will accept defeat in Syria.
Even if Mr Al Assad is killed or deposed, or the regime is forced to surrender Damascus and its remains retreat to the coastal areas as many envisage, Iran will still have considerable powers of nuisance. Engaging it may provide, at least, a face-saving mechanism for Iran when its Syrian allies become beyond salvation. Or it may be a way Iran can salvage its connection to Hizbollah in Lebanon.
The other question is, should that time come, what the future of Syria will be - and what direction Egypt will push it in. Will the troika of pro-regime change regional powers who are taking part in the initiative (Egypt, Turkey and Saudi Arabia) see eye to eye on who should emerge dominant: the Free Syrian Army (or at least its core led by former regime figures), the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, the autonomous militias that sprang up across the country, or Salafi and jihadist fighters believed to be financed by Gulf foundations?
Are Egypt's new rulers hoping to create a Muslim Brotherhood arc in the region, with like-minded regimes heeding Cairo's call?
It is much too early to tell, but there are antecedents. An Egyptian veteran of diplomacy with Syria recently pointed out to me that Egypt and Syria have been united under the Tulunids, the Fatimids, the Mamluks and Mohammed Ali - in other words, he quipped, Turkic, Berber Shia, Kurdish, Ottoman and Albanian rulers of Egypt. In all these cases, the Cairo-based rulers treated Damascus as a province.
This high-handed attitude continued into more modern times. The United Arab Republic, albeit short-lived, had a Syrian officer stationed in Cairo returned to his country fuming at Egyptian arrogance; Syrians were blocked from holding the highest positions in the UAR, one of the factors which made officers and politicians leery of Egyptian domination. The officer's name was Hafez Al Assad, and you know the rest of the story.
Issandr El Amrani is an independent Cairo-based journalist and commentator. He blogs at www.arabist.net
On Twitter: @arabist
Updated: October 10, 2012 04:00 AM