When Tahrir Square was not playing host to Egypt’s revolutionary sequels, it became one of the chief unofficial nerve centres of the Syrian Revolution.
Thousands of fleeing Syrians quickly connected with Egyptian activism, coordinated with the Syrian National Council (SNC), raised awareness among Egyptians, set up tents, launched weekly protests, collected donations, hosted conferences, pressured the nearby Arab League, and disseminated information from inside Syria with international media outlets and Cairo-based journalists.
Syrian activities could be found in the shadow of the Arab League building and on the steps of Alexandria's Bibliotheca Alexandrina. In various protest marches, Syrian flags competed with Egyptian flags while Syrian accents become increasingly audible.
Syrian activism in Cairo developed major advantages over other regional capitals. Amman was overrun by Syrian intelligence operatives; Beirut saw Hezbollah and pro-Assad allies hand over Syrian activists and defecting soldiers back to the Syrian regime; and, despite Turkey’s state-sanctioned benevolence towards the Syrian uprising (and Turkey has done much for the opposition), Ankara is suspected by key Syrian opposition figures of harbouring Turkish – some would say neo-Ottoman – designs on Syria’s future. The minority Kurds who feature prominently in the SNC are at the forefront of such suspicions.
Cairo was a different story. The Syrian revolution came to the streets of Egypt with a Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) busy with its own internal issues and a public space that had become synonymous with civil disobedience and which had witnessed its own revolution. Three primary Syrian revolutionary movements set up shop: the Muslim Brotherhood- induced Syrian Revolution Association in Egypt (SRAE), the moderate Dignity movement, and the non-political Syrian Freedom Youth. Syrian activism was facilitated by a favourable environment.
Egyptian society has arguably declared 'total war' against the Assad regime. Numerous segments of the Egyptian public have thrown their weight behind 'their' Syrian revolution and cheered for their team. Egypt’s ageing Nasserist generation, young liberal activists and anti-Alawite Islamists alike all supported the narrative of their counterparts on the Syrian revolutionary front. Not to mention Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, who wish to see their franchise in Syria prevail.
Egyptians often cross societal lines in the interests of the Syrian revolution. In one case, an Egyptian friend of mine was requested by a Salafist group to feature in a pro-Syrian revolution awareness video. I asked him why he was chosen, given that he was not a Salafist nor did he have a beard. He replied that was exactly why, as the more progressive elements of Egypt’s Salafist groups sought consensus on the Syrian Revolution, and having a 'non-divisive' looking Egyptian would help push the Syrian revolution up the list of priorities for the Egyptian public.
High up it is. According to a December 2011 Gallup poll, 56 per cent of Egyptians supported the Syrian uprising, 31 per cent said they were unsure, and 12 per cent said they were opposed to the Syrian protesters. Yet the 31 per cent should not be interpreted as support for Assad; it is regional instability that inspires the public's assessment, particularly in the Coptic Church, where people fear for their Syrian counterparts at the hands of Islamists. Today, anecdotally, support for the protests has grown considerably.
Egyptian activists have been moonlighting the Syrian revolution due, in part, to dissatisfaction regarding their own revolution. Twitter feed noise shows Egyptians tweeting advice to their counterparts in Syria, such as 'Don't take photographs with tanks (@MYousrySalama)' and 'Don't forget Bashar's wife. She should be buried with him. Don't leave her free and do what some idiots I know have done (@esraamahfouz).'
Egypt’s high politics have also taken on the cause with earnest. Last February, members of the SNC entered Egypt’s parliament to a rapturous welcome and bearing the Syrian freedom flag, the first time in living memory that a non-Egyptian flag was brought into Egypt's People's Assembly.
Something about Assad’s Syria taps deep into the fears of the Egyptian psyche: the republican heredity succession that started in Damascus when Bashar inherited power from his father in 2000 threatened to spill over into Egypt too. The Mubarak family, at least, saw a precedent, and what followed were years of policies and manoeuvres designed to pave the way for Gamal Mubarak’s succession to the throne. Bashar’s ominous face always loomed in Egypt’s media and public discourse about the country's political future.
The subtext exhibits a powerful historical romanticism: past dynasties and dictatorships, from Saladin to Gamal Abdel-Nasser, which had united Syria and Egypt have fuelled a pan-Arabism from below that now challenges the elite-driven pan-Arabism from above. This is underpinned by the unspoken ethos of the so-called 'Arab Spring,' in which one Arab society needs to aid another Arab society against their respective dictatorships.
This is nurturing a symbiotic relationship between the post-revolutionary states of Egypt and, soon, Syria. Egypt perceives Syria as a partner (albeit a slightly junior one) that it needs if it is to fulfil regional ambitions that are yet to take shape. At first glance, this may seem unlikely, given the Egyptian military's lack of imagination and lacklustre policies. Yet Egypt's military establishment is growing weary of a rising Turkey and Iran that marginalise Egypt’s regional role. This partially explains why Syrian activism in Egypt is tolerated by the military.
Furthermore, there is a growing discourse in Egyptian media, academia, and across the political spectrum on what Egypt's role should be in the region and how to revive its soft power. Syria prides itself as the co-author of Arab ideas and cultural works, yet it requires heavyweight Egypt – the latter's complex social structures and dynamic agencies – to disseminate such trends throughout the Arab world.
There is a long way to go. Egypt’s economic dire straits need major fixing, while Syria’s road to political stabilty will be long. Yet the pages of the future appear more blank than before, with an emerging generation of Arabs in possession of ink-filled pens. Which Arabs will ultimately hold onto those pens is the next question.
Amro Ali is a political analyst and PhD scholar at the University of Sydney's Department of Government and International Relations. He blogs at www.amroali.com and his Twitter handle is @_amroali. The above article was also written for opendemocracy.net.