x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Syrians see eerie parallel in Cairo

The images and rhetoric pouring out of Egypt as security forces battle Muslim protesters are eerily familiar to Syrians, who see echoes of their own war reflected in Cairo's street fighting. Phil Sands reports

Supporters of deposed Egyptian president Mohammed Morsi protest outside Al Fath Mosque in Ramses Square, Cairo on Friday.
Supporters of deposed Egyptian president Mohammed Morsi protest outside Al Fath Mosque in Ramses Square, Cairo on Friday.

ISTANBUL // The images and rhetoric pouring out of Egypt as security forces battle Muslim protesters are eerily familiar to Syrians, who see echoes of their own war reflected in Cairo's street fighting.

Syria's complex web of divisions, between pro and anti-regime, moderates and radicals, democrats and autocrats, haves and have-nots, is paralleled in the struggle for control over Egypt.

"Syrians are watching closely what is happening in Egypt and they are divided over it, just like they are divided over the situation here, some are with the military, others are with the protesters," said a 36 year-old resident of Damascus.

The Egyptian revolution in 2011 against president Hosni Mubarak helped inspire the revolt against Syria's entrenched autocrat, president Bashar Al Assad.

It promised a quick and relatively bloodless victory for civilians brave enough to stand against a military ruler.

Hopes of emulating that swift, Egyptian-style change in Damascus were, however, blown apart by a Syrian regime that refused to yield to popular pressures and security forces willing to gun down the opposition, starting an armed conflict that has killed more than 100,000 people.

Now, the positions are reversing, with Syria's violence offering a dangerous template for Egypt.

After ousting president Mohammad Morsi and the ruling Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt's military establishment - the real power behind Mubarak - has revealed its willingness to use force to retain power this time around.

In Damascus, that shift has been gleefully welcomed by the Syrian authorities and supporters of Mr Al Assad, who view it as a vindication of their own actions since the start of the revolt in March 2011.

"Assad is using the Egyptian crisis as evidence that all Arab regimes are using force and their army to finish any demonstration or sit-ins," said an independent analyst in Damascus, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

"Events in Egypt are dominating state media news and talk shows, with a lot of focus on how bad the Muslim Brotherhood is," he said.

The Syrian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, banned since the 1960s, staged an ill-fated violent rebellion in the 1980s. It, and other more radical Islamist factions, have subsequently taken a significant role in the current uprising against Mr Al Assad.

On Sunday, Al Watan, a pro-regime newspaper published in Damascus, referred to the violence in Cairo as "the worst four days in modern history", saying security forces there were battling terrorism and Al Qaeda.

It accused Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood, of trying to ignite a "sectarian war", and seized on Egyptian military assertions that international media was "misrepresenting" reality.

That narrative is a familiar one in Syrian state media, which has portrayed the regime's war on its opponents in exactly those terms.

It is a depiction that resonates with regime loyalists.

"The Muslim Brotherhood and Morsi's supporters attacked churches and governmental buildings for no reason so the Egyptian army and police should prevent them using any means necessary," said Haider, a Syrian government employee living in the Mezzeh 86 neighbourhood of Damascus. He is an Alawite, the same Shiite minority sect that dominates Syria's ruling elite.

"The Syrian army is doing the same thing, the Syrian army is also facing terrorist groups which have all kinds of arms. We want democratic government but not a Muslim Brotherhood government, which will implement Islamic law on Muslims and non-Muslims and this is not fair," he said.

Syrian opponents to Mr Al Assad, all too used to coming under fire, broadly seem to sympathise with those standing against Egypt's military rulers, even if they are not sympathetic to the much criticised Syrian Muslim Brotherhood.

"Pro-Assad Syrians and minorities, Christians, Alawites, Druze and others, are so happy to see the Egyptian army is cracking down on the Muslim Brotherhood while the anti-Assad Syrians are so sad to see a democratically elected government and president arrested by soldiers just because he represented an Islamic party," said Hassan, 40, a resident of Damascus and an opposition political activist.

Supporters of Mr Al Assad were angered by Mr Morsi's vocal criticism of the Damascus regime - although that was tempered by an easing of Cairo's tense relationship with Iran, a key backer of Syria's rulers - and promised lessons would be learnt from Egypt's experience.

"The Egyptians want a democratic secular government so, the army finished Morsi's government. It is very important what happened in Egypt for all Arab countries to know the reality of those religious parties. I am happy to see Morsi in jail. Morsi supported sending terrorists and extremist groups to kill honest Syrians," said Haider, the Mezzeh 86 resident.

Syria's opposition similarly insisted they would learn lessons from Egypt and would dismantle the regime and security apparatus to ensure against an Egyptian-style scenario in future, should the Assad regime be toppled.

"The Egyptians only made half a revolution, they toppled the president not the regime," said Hassan, the Syrian political activist.

"Syrian rebels must root out all of the Assad regime and its organisations - making half a revolution is just to dig a tomb for ourselves"

psands@thenational.ae

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