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 amongst 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 journalists based in Cairo.
Syrian activities could be found in the shadow of the Arab League building and on the steps of the Alexandria library, the Bibliotheca Alexandrina. In various protest marches, Syrian flags compete with Egyptian flags and 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), it 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 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, 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.
Often Egyptians cross societal lines in the interests of the Syrian revolution. In one case, an Egyptian friend of mine was requested by a Salafi group to feature in a pro-Syrian revolution awareness video. I asked him why he was chosen, given that he was neither a Salafi nor did he have a beard. He replied that was exactly why, as the more progressive elements of Egypt’s Salafi groups sought a consensus on the Syrian Revolution and having a “non-divisive” looking Egyptian would help push the Syrian revolution up the list of priorities for Egyptians.
High up it is. According to a December 2011 Gallup poll, 56 percent of Egyptians supported the Syrian uprising, 31 percent said they were unsure, and 12 percent said they were opposed to the Syrian protesters. Yet the 31 percent 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 counterparts at the hands of Islamists. Today, anecdotally, the support for the protests has considerably grown.
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 “Do not take photographs with tanks (@MYousrySalama)” and “Don’t forget Bashar’s wife. She should be buried with him. Do not 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 parliament.
Something about Assad’s Syria taps deep into the fears of the Egyptian psyche: the republican hereditary 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 maneuvers 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 of what awaited Egypt’s future.
The subtext exhibits a powerful historical romanticism — past dynasties and dictatorships, from Saladin to Gamal Abdel-Nasser that united Syria and Egypt have fuelled a pan-Arabism from below that now challenges 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 to be 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 SCAF’s lack of imagination and lacklustre policies. Yet Egypt’s military establishment is growing weary of a rising Turkey and Iran that marginalises Egypt’s regional role. This partially explains why Syrian activism in Egypt is tolerated by them.
Furthermore, there is a growing discourse in Egypt’s 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 — its complex social structures and dynamic agencies — to disseminate such trends throughout the Arab world.
There is a long way to go though. Egypt’s economic dire straits need major fixing and Syria’s road to political stabilisation will be long. Yet the pages of the future look more blank than before with an emerging generation of Arabs in possession of ink-filled pens. Which Arabs hold onto those pens is the next question.