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Opinion: Sisi’s Syria Policy | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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File photo of Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi taken on May 14, 2014. (Reuters/Amr Abdallah Dalsh)

Egyptian president-elect Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi dedicated most of his electoral campaign to addressing domestic issues and Egyptian citizens’ concerns. He did not say much about international affairs, such as Libya’s stability or defending the Gulf.

Some websites affiliated with the Syrian regime began to say that the new Egyptian president stands with Syria on the basis that he opposes extremist Islamist groups and has taken a stand against the Muslim Brotherhood.

So, do we know what the Egyptian president-elect is thinking with regards to regional issues? No, not yet. Personally, I have only met Sisi once. It was three years ago, when he was head of military intelligence and a member of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) that ruled Egypt following Hosni Mubarak’s fall from power. I met him in his office shortly after the revolution. During my meeting, I did not get the sense that he is a hostile figure or that he harbors any aggressive thoughts. He seemed pragmatic, calm and concerned about Egypt’s future, fearing that it could be hampered by chaos.

Personally, I think President Sisi will bolster support for Egypt’s closest allies, such as Saudi Arabia, and will also support the Syrian revolution. We don’t know yet where Sisi stands in terms of his foreign policy, but we expect Egypt to overcome its isolation and to begin, in the upcoming weeks, to deal with numerous issues after a long absence that began when Mohamed Mursi was ousted last year.

In order to understand Sisi’s policy towards the most difficult and thorny issue in the region, namely Syria, we must first ask: What is his stance on Iran? For domestic reasons, we expect Sisi to be even more hostile towards Iran than Mubarak was. During most of Mubarak’s presidency, Egypt and Iran had no formal diplomatic relations. On the other hand, the Muslim Brotherhood has had a long-lasting connection with the Iranian regime. Mursi flung open Cairo’s doors to Tehran for the first time since the fall of the Shah in 1979. The Iranian regime even reportedly sent security and political experts to aid Mursi. Mursi sought to imitate the regime in Tehran by taking over the judiciary, security and the media. However, he was ultimately unable to do so.

If Sisi truly views the Iranian regime as an opponent, he will certainly stand by the Syrian revolution, and particularly the Syrian National Coalition and the Free Syrian Army. He would thus be taking a position alongside Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Jordan and the rest of the moderate Arab states. Syria has always been Iran’s long hand in the region, through which Tehran supports Hamas, Islamic Jihad and Hezbollah.

One year ago, a man allegedly affiliated with the Sisi camp claimed that Egypt’s president-elect supports Assad based on a foreign conspiracy targeting Arab military capabilities. He pointed to the elimination of Saddam Hussein’s army and the targeting of the Assad military, adding that the Egyptian military cannot accept this state of affairs.

Personally, I view this as a conspiracy and think that it is unlikely that regional disputes can be simplified in this manner. During the eras of Hafez Al-Assad and Bashar Al-Assad, the Syrian Army was nothing more than a presidential guard. They lost all their battles with Israel, including the October War of 1973. The Syrian military also lost while confronting the Israelis in Lebanon, ultimately becoming a force of occupation. The Syrian military has suppressed the majority of the Syrian people over the past 40 years. It therefore cannot be compared with the Egyptian military—the vital institution which has maintained Egypt and imposed a balance on the country and which is viewed by Egyptians as the army of the people.

I think President Sisi will bolster support for Egypt’s closest allies, such as Saudi Arabia, and will support the Syrian revolution and will turn the tables on Iran—not because he opposes Iran or the Brotherhood, but because it is important to redraw the regional map of alliances to provide greater stability and security. By doing so, Sisi will obstruct those who seek to wreak havoc in the region and sabotage the Egyptian revolution. Here, I am talking about those foreign parties who infiltrated Egypt from beyond its borders and forcibly freed prisoners convicted on terrorism charges from its jails.

And so, all roads lead to Damascus.