What's behind Egyptian President Mursi's Syria policy?
Egypt's President Mohamed Mursi has taken a strong stance against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's role in the violent and protracted conflict in Syria. Yesterday, Mursi warned Iran that its continued support for the Syrian regime would hamper relations with Egypt. Despite being the first Egyptian president to visit Iran since its 1979 revolution, he first condemned the Assad regime - one of Iran's main allies - at last month's Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) summit in Tehran, calling the Syrian uprising a "revolution against an oppressive regime."
Mursi's hardline position may be principled but it is also a strong political move. Domestic opposition to the Syrian regime remains strong. Graffiti endorsing the Free Syrian Army, the main anti-government forces in Syria, can be seen throughout Cairo. Tahrir Square features a semi-permanent tent outside the Arab League headquarters - filled with Syrian flags, pictures cataloguing the bloodshed. Several women have been hunger-striking in protest. There are indications that Mursi's Syria policy will ease pressure on him for domestic reforms, broaden his support base and allow for more wiggle room in post-revolutionary Egypt's relations with neighbouring Israel.
The appeal for solidarity
During the NAM summit, Mursi commented that "solidarity with the plight of the Syrian people against a repressive regime that has lost its legitimacy is not only a moral duty but one of political and strategic necessity". At the recent Organisation of the Islamic Conference (OIC) held in Saudi Arabia he initiated a collaboration between four states to end the situation in Syria - known as the "Islamic Quartet" of Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Iran and Egypt.
The inclusion of Iran in this group is particularly interesting - not least because it has already pledged its full support to Assad, while other members of the quartet look to remove Syria's president from power. Not only is Mursi capitalising on attempts that Iran has made to reach out to Egypt's new Islamic government, he has also bolstered his reputation as a man of principle by delivering a clear message that he is more concerned with serious action than political allegiances.
Across the Middle East, Mursi has widely praised for this tough stance. Rafiq Khurl, in an independent Lebanese paper, said that his speech "pulled the carpet from under Iran's feet". However, this diplomatic pressure is yet to yield serious results. One Egyptian diplomat confirmed that he could not see how Mursi's proposed quartet will be able to come to a conclusion, with Iran seemingly unwilling to deter from its pro-Assad stance.
Deflecting domestic issues
Mursi has pledged money and support for Syrian refugees in Egypt and abroad. Cairo has helped to build a field hospital for Syrian refugees near the Syrian border and pledged money for Syrian refugees in Jordan and in Syria. The growing number of Syrian refugees in Egypt, estimated to be at around 95,000 since March 2011, has not been ignored - Mursi has promised to treat Syrian children in the education system just like Egyptians.
Talking tough about Syria and supporting the Syria people affected by the fighting is one way to score political points in Egypt - at very little cost. The unwavering will to end autocratic rule, which has been heralded as his Nasser moment, is also a way for Mursi to reinforce his own revolutionary credentials. And they need to be bolstered. Over the coming months Mursi can expect criticism for Egypt's sluggish economy, continuing relations with Israel, and allowing the unpopular IMF to lend to the Egyptian government. Mursi's Syria policy could act as a shield against cries of sell out.
Laura Aumeer is a Mauritian-British freelance writer. She holds a BSc in Government and History from the LSE, where she is currently studying for an MSc. She has a particular interest in North Africa. Follow her on twitter @lauraY_A