The new Egyptian president, Mohamed Morsi, performed a dramatic about turn today when he told an audience in Iran that he supported military intervention in Syria – infuriating Bashar al-Assad’s foreign minister and cleaving a gaping political fissure with Tehran.
Mr Morsi told the meeting of 120 countries at the Non-Aligned Movement summit in Tehran that the crisis in Syria was a “responsibility on all our shoulders” and that regional players should confront the “oppressive regime” President Assad.
His comments are likely to heap further pressure on Syria, where state TV reported that Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem had stormed out of the conference in disgust. Officials accused Mr Morsi of inciting rebels who are trying to topple the regime. But they will also deepen the widening rift with Iran, a Shia theocracy which is a long-standing ally of secular Syria.
The major Arab Gulf powers, including Qatar and Saudi Arabia, have long sought to undermine the regional ambitions of Ayatollah Khamenei, and the Egyptian president’s intervention will be viewed as a shot across the bows of Tehran, which stands to lose a key plank in its foreign policy if Assad falls.
Speaking to the conference yesterday, Mr Morsi said: "We all have to announce our full solidarity with the struggle of those seeking freedom and justice in Syria, and translate this sympathy into a clear political vision that supports a peaceful transition to a democratic system of rule that reflects the demands of the Syrian people for freedom."
His comments were at odds with a statement he made in July, when he said that military intervention against Syria – a country which was briefly subsumed into Egypt as part of the United Arab Republic until 1961 - was “not the solution”.
There was no direct reference to his Iranian hosts, but any collateral damage to Tehran’s prestige will be welcome. In one meeting during his presidential campaign, Mr Morsi assured hard line Sunni fundamentalists that any close alliances with Shia Iran – viewed with disdain by conservative orthodox Sunnis – was a “red line” he would not cross.
Today’s speech came after Mr Morsi decided earlier this month to purge the military of its highest ranking officer, Field Marshall Hussein Tantawi, in what many analysts viewed as high stakes strategy to bolster his own position.
Egyptian political expert Diaa Rashwan said Mr Morsi’s intervention was an attempt to set his own stall. “I think there was an internal change following the Tantawi dismissal,” he said. “When he initially said he was not in favour of intervention, Field Marshall Tantawi was still in charge.”
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