On 22 February 1958, Egypt and Syria proclaimed their union under the banner of the United Arab Republic (UAR). This merger marked the pinnacle of pan-Arabism, under the leadership of late president Gama Abdel-Nasser. However, it was not to last long. In September 1961, a group of Syrian officers, dissatisfied with the domination of Egypt, led a coup and declared Syria’s independence from the UAR. They tried nonetheless to renegotiate a new political union with Cairo, but Nasser refused. Fifty-six years after the proclamation of the Egyptian-Syrian union, pan-Arabism has run its course and given way to the national, often narrow, interests of different Arab states.
The figure of Nasser, however, made a remarkable comeback to the Egyptian political landscape following the 30 June 2013 popular uprising against the Muslim Brotherhood regime, whose presence in power had allowed religious supranational alliances and solidarities to take precedence over national interests and pan-Arab solidarity. Moreover, the political instability, security concerns and economic deterioration that followed the 25 January 2011 revolt had already yielded a strong nostalgia for the bygone glory of Nasser’s 50s and 60s Egypt.
Today’s probable candidate for the presidential elections and likely next president, Field Marshal Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi, is often associated with Nasser. But those who strike this comparison have particularly in mind the strong man whose country desperately needs at this juncture, rather than the pan-Arab policies of another era, especially vis-à-vis the Syrian crisis.
The pan-Arab sentiment was nevertheless perceptible in Egypt's hostile public reaction -- and despite the broad solidarity with the opposition -- to America's threat of a military strike against President Bashar Al-Assad’s regime in Damascus last September. This hostile reaction to any foreign military intervention in Syria was, and still is, upheld by the interim government: a reversed position from the one adopted by Cairo under the Muslim Brotherhood.
Under former president Mohamed Morsi, the Egyptian policy towards civil war in Syria took a clear confessional turn. Surrounding himself in the last months of his rule with radical Salafist and former jihadist allies, Morsi announced on 15 June 2013 the severance of diplomatic relations with Damascus, called for a no-fly zone over Syria, asked the Lebanese Shia Hezbollah to leave Syria and allowed, even encouraged, Egyptians to fight alongside the Syrian armed opposition, to the anger of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Egyptian army which saw a reckless policy with incalculable consequences. Egypt had in the 1990s already suffered a wave of terrorist attacks driven, among others, by those labelled the "Egyptian Afghans" -- young Egyptians who had been allowed and encouraged by former president Anwar Sadat to fight Soviet troops in Afghanistan. Today we speak of the "returnees" of Syria, those Egyptians returning home, feeding the terrorist wave after fighting alongside Syrian jihadists.
Shortly after his inauguration on 30 June 2012, Morsi launched in August his initiative to create an Islamic Quartet, consisting of Egypt, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Iran, to resolve the Syrian crisis. But the differences between Iran, strategic and steadfast ally of the Syrian regime, and Riyadh, supporter of the departure of President Assad and very hostile to Tehran, have not helped to achieve any breakthrough.
Morsi’s dismissal, and the accession to power of an interim president and government backed by the army, led Egypt to adopt a more cautious policy vis-à-vis the Syrian crisis, stripped of its religious dimension. Mired in its internal problems and lack of financial resources, Egypt post-Morsi observes a non-interventionist policy limited to diplomatic positions calling for a political resolution to the crisis and seeking to promote a negotiated solution. Unlike Morsi, who had taken up the cause of the armed opposition, the interim regime seeks to observe a neutral position between Syrian protagonists.
But Cairo is aware that the conflict in Syria has, over time, become a proxy war, with competing regional and global powers -- notably Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey, Iran, Russia, the United States and the European Union. Expressing pessimism about a swift solution to the crisis due to the clashing interests of multiple foreign interventions, Egypt’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Nabil Fahmy believes a way out can only be reached through a "big deal" to be concluded between foreign powers supporting the different parties in conflict. This requires mutual concessions and compromises as yet unfound.
Cairo is notably concerned about the continuation of the armed conflict and its destabilising impact – beginning with the problem of the 2.4 million Syrian refugees in 2013 – on Syria, neighbouring countries and the entire region, including Egypt, which is already shaken by its internal challenges. Mainly present in neighbouring countries – Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey and Iraq – the number of refugees continues to grow. In Egypt, 120,000 registered Syrian refugees reside, while unofficial estimates place their numbers between 250,000 to 300,000.
Many of these refugees are subjected to harassment and a hostile climate due to the support some of them allegedly offered the Muslim Brotherhood. In any case, Egyptian authorities perceive the massive and uncontrolled presence of Syrian refugees as a destabilising factor, at a time when Egypt is facing serious problems of security and terrorism. Imposed restrictions on visas to Syrian refugees can be understood in light of these fears.
In the case of a prolonged conflict or a fall of the Assad regime, Egypt remains still more concerned about a possible disintegration of the Syrian state according to religious criteria (notably Sunnis vs. Alawites, who are an offshoot of the Shia) and its destabilising consequences on the region, particularly the Gulf states. These countries -- specifically Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait, where significant Shia minorities live -- are Egypt’s main financial supporters and providers of funding. The continuation of their multifaceted assistance is crucial for the success of the transition period and the recovery of the economy, battered since 25 January 2011.