By Nashashibi, Sharif
The Middle East , No. 445
EGYPTIAN PRESIDENT MOHAMED MORSI'S recent decision to "definitively break off relations with the current regime in Syria" made big headlines, which is puzzling given the move is inconsequential.
Bilateral ties have been effectively nonexistent since he took office a year ago. Since m then, on numerous occasions, Morsi has expressed "full support" for the Syrian revolution against an "oppressive" and "repressive" regime "that has lost its legitimacy." He has described such backing as "a moral duty," and a "political and strategic necessity." As such, it is the timing of his decision, not its substance that warrants attention.
It may have been prompted by the Syrian regime's recent battlefield successes--most notably the recapture of the strategic city of Qusayr--due to the direct military involvement of Lebanon's Hizbullah movement. "Today, we stand against Hizbullah for Syria," Morsi said during his announcement on 15 June, a day after his Muslim Brotherhood denounced Hizbullah's intervention and backed calls for holy war in Syria.
However, it is much more likely that the severing of relations is due to Egyptian politics. It is a tried and tested formula that when a head of state is struggling domestically, he or she tries to divert people's attention towards foreign policy, talking or acting tough on issues that may resonate with the public.
It is no coincidence that Morsi's announcement came just two weeks before nationwide demonstrations on 30 June to mark the first anniversary of his rule, with millions having signed a petition demanding that he resign.
Morsi was addressing a Cairo stadium packed with supporters, during which he denounced the growing protest movement against him. This may have served as a rallying cry to his supporters, who had called for a "million-man march" on 21 June.
Former Prime Minister Ahmed Shafiq, who was narrowly defeated in last year's presidential elections, called the 30 June mass protest a "day of salvation" that will be "the certain end" of the Brotherhood's "shameful" governance, or at least "the beginning of the end."
Even the Salafist Al Nour party--which is not allied to the mainly secular, liberal opposition movement boycotted the "Support for Syria" rally at which Morsi made his announcement, due to "reservations" over the timing of this and similar events, and suspicions that the aim was "to mobilise one group of people against another before 30 June."
A poll by the Egyptian Centre for Public Opinion Research revealed that by the end of his 11th month in office, 4z% of respondents approved of Morsi--down from 46% in the previous month--with 54% supporting early elections, something the president has rejected.
The severing of ties with the Syrian regime is part of Morsi's "efforts to paint himself as a leader trying to reclaim Egypt's position as an Arab political powerhouse," wrote Bloomberg's North Africa bureau chief Tarek El Tablawy. …