Syrian youth chant slogans beneath revolutionary flag outside protest tent in Tahrir Square, Cairo, Egypt, February, 2012 (Photo: AP)
A conference on Syria held at Cairo's Doctors Syndicate Tuesday saw its focus shift from the development of a support movement into a discussion dominated by pro- and anti-interventionist rhetoric.
Entitled “The Liberation of Cairo Ends in Syria,” the conference was organised by the Federation of Arab Doctors in cooperation with the Social Consensus Initiative (SCI) – consisting of number of Egyptian political parties, civil society organisations, unions and student activists – as a project aiming to “work towards establishing a social movement in support of the Syrian revolution.”
With an audience dominated by youth in addition to researchers and Egypt-based Syrians, the forum saw presentations aimed at addressing ways in which assistance could be provided to Syria.
Discussions, however, veered away from organisational issues, taking a more political turn. Arguments descended into talk of imperialism, Zionism and Arabism.
Rabab El-Mahdi, a political science professor at the American University in Cairo (AUC), stressed that hopes for the success of the ongoing Arab uprisings rested on the outcome of Syria's popular revolt. Referring to a popular quote, the AUC professor stated, “If Egypt is the beating heart of the Arab world, Syria is its intellectual mind.”
The region is witnessing an upsurge of "Arabism from below" as opposed to the top-down approach characteristic of president Gamal Abdel-Nasser's regime.
"It is a unity amongst the Arab people, and the unity of its struggle and resistance against the Zionist imperialist power,” clarified Rabab. The uprisings, she adds, are an opportunity to join these two ends – Egypt and Syria – of resistance against Israel.
El-Mahdi's most politically charged statement, however, came when she posited that just as there is a revolution there is also a counter-revolution that has arisen due to the country's geo-strategic position.
The AUC professor pointed to Saudi Arabia and Qatar’s interest in arming the opposition, the Free Syrian Army, as well as the regional and international support of the Syrian revolution taking form in the legitimisation of the Syrian National Council (SNC).
“They are intentionally taking part in a counter-revolution and the expansion of imperialism in the region, which would lead to the disintegration of the Arab umma (nation),” El-Mahdi stated.
“It is important to point out that this counter-revolutionary project is very much a nationalist project as much as the revolution is.”
Counter-revolutionary efforts, however, should not discourage support efforts. Rather, supporters should "work towards strengthening a popular base separate from those of the international bodies like that of the United Nations,” she clarified.
El-Mahdi's reading of the situation did not sit well with a number of audience members and several of the other speakers.
An audience member stated that while the priority of the Syrian revolution is to try to be as peaceful as possible, when it comes to choosing between the people and the nation, the priority should go to the people: “If this leads to Arab intervention, then why not?”
Among the video presentations, which supplemented the talks, was a video tribute to the Free Syrian Army. The tribute ironically resembled patriotic propaganda in support of Syria's strongman Bashar Al-Assad.
Nezar Kharrat from the Brotherhood-dominated Syrian Revolution Association in Egypt (SRAE) claimed that foreign intervention has already taken root in Syria via the Russians and Iranians. Kharrat stated that the Assad regime allowed this to happen.
“The killing of innocent children in the street is not peaceful; we do not want [the pro-democracy movement] to be peaceful."
In response, El-Mahdi emphasised, "Anyone who believes than any form of military intervention in Syria can have a positive effect is delusional...This is Syria not Libya.”
It was a heated discussion, but not all attendees were satisfied with the debate. A Syrian audience member and a professor of law at a private university in Cairo expressed frustration at the time spent discussing foreign military intervention.
The time could have been better spent, according to the professor, brainstorming forms of assistance and working towards their materialisation.