This past week, Egypt-Syria relations warmed further, as evidenced by Egyptian President 'Abd Al-Fattah Al-Sisi's public statements in support of the Syrian army's war against the "terrorists," and by several articles in the Egyptian government daily Al-Ahram expressing approval of closer relations in light of the changes in the region, including because of the election of Donald Trump as U.S. president, and the shared challenges they are facing. Additional signs of rapprochement include an official visit to Cairo by Syrian National Security Bureau head 'Ali Mamlouk in October, and reports of Egyptian military and humanitarian aid to Syria.
Al-Sisi's statement in support of the Syrian army also sparked criticism in Egypt, expressed in press articles that called on him to clarify his position on Syria and refrain from sending troops there.
The rapprochement between Egypt and Syria comes at a time of mounting Egyptian-Saudi tension due to sharp disagreement on the Syria crisis; according to the London-based daily Al-Quds Al-Arabi, efforts to mediate between the two countries by Arab League secretary-general Muhammad Abu Al-Gheit and by the UAE have failed.
The following are excerpts from Al-Sisi's statement and from the articles in the Egyptian press:
Al-Sisi: We Support The Syrian Army
According to reports in the Arab press, in a November 22 Portuguese television interview, Al-Sisi publicly expressed, for the first time, his support for the Syrian army, while at the same time rejecting the possibility of Egyptian troops operating in Syria as part of U.N. forces. He said: "It is better for a country's [own] national military forces to protect its security and stability, so that sensitivities will not arise because of the presence of other forces. The most appropriate thing [for other countries] to do [in such cases] is to support a country's national army, for example in Libya, so that [the Libyan army] will be able to control Libyan territory, deal with the extremist elements [there], and bring about the necessary stability. The same applies to Syria, [where] we support the Syrian army, and to Iraq..." With regard to the international efforts to fight terrorism, Al-Sisi said that it was preferable to "prepare the national armies to deal with the terrorist organizations, instead of having international forces [in the countries]... The world must inevitably join efforts to combat terrorism, [but] it is better to support the national armies in Libya, Syria and Iraq so that they can deal with the terrorism [on their own]."
Al-Sisi made these statements some two days after Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Al-Mu'allem had noted that "the Egyptian discourse has improved" but added that this improvement "does not yet match our expectations. The reason [for our expectations] is simple: When Syria and Egypt are together, the situation of the Arab ummah is good. The mighty Egypt, its people, and its army cannot stand idly by in light of what is happening in Syria, just as Syria cannot but show solidarity with the Egyptian army as it fights terrorism in Sinai. [At this time, Egypt needs to take] one small leap [ahead] so that things return to their natural state."
In Syria, Al-Sisi's November 22 statement of support for the Syrian army was welcomed. Syrian Ambassador to Moscow Riad Haddad said: "We anticipate that Egypt will play a positive role in resolving the Syria crisis. We welcome any Egyptian effort to end terrorism in Syria..." The Syrian government daily Al-Ba'th noted that Al-Sisi's "conspicuous" position in support of the Syrian army "indicates that Egypt will soon return to its role of leadership in helping to resolve the crises across the ummah." The DP News website, which is close to the Syrian regime, also said: "In the last few days there have been positive statements from both the Egyptian and Syrian sides that are paving the way to a renewal of ties between the two regimes."
Reports Of Egyptian Military Aid To Syria
According to reports, these statements by Al-Sisi and Mu'allem are backed up by practical measures by the two countries. During his October 17, 2016 visit to Cairo, Syrian National Security Bureau head 'Ali Mamlouk met, according to DP News reports, with Egyptian General Intelligence Directorate head Khaled Fawzy, and the two agreed that their countries would "coordinate their political positions and increase military coordination in combatting the terrorism that both are dealing with." According to the Saudi Al-Hayat, Mamlouk and Egyptian officials discussed dispatching Egyptian officers to the battlefronts in Syria, increasing security cooperation, and including Egypt in efforts of humanitarian aid to Aleppo.
Two weeks later, on November 3, the Iranian Tasnim news agency reported that the Egyptian government was "determined to extend military aid to Syria and send troops there to participate in the war against the terrorists... The two governments will soon officially announce [their] coordination in the war on terror."
On November 24, two days after Al-Sisi's statements, Muhammad Ballout, a reporter for the Lebanese Al-Safir daily, which is close to the Syrian regime, wrote: "The Egyptians have stopped idly observing what is happening in Syria and have decided... to intervene there gradually." According to the report, secret Syria-Egypt military contacts have been underway for over a year, and these have intensified in recent weeks. Two very senior Egyptian army officers are currently in Syria touring the battlefronts, including the Quneitra area, and they also participated in a meeting of the Syrian army division that is deployed there. The report added that, in November 12, 2016, a unit of 18 Egyptian helicopter pilots had arrived at the Hama airbase, and, citing a Syrian source, that after January 2017, large Egyptian forces would be arriving in Syria to participate in military activity, and would not just have an auxiliary role at the Hama airbase. Additionally, according to the report, a high-ranking Egyptian diplomat is expected to visit Syria soon, possibly Foreign Minister Sameh Shukri or one of his senior advisors.
Egypt was quick to deny the Al-Safir report. Egyptian Foreign Ministry spokesman Ahmed Abu Zeid stressed that Cairo had sent no military forces to Syria, and an Egyptian military official called the report "meaningless, silly nonsense" and "completely false." The official stated that "the perception of the general leadership, and of the Egyptian state and its policies, is based on noninterference in the internal affairs of other countries." However, Al-Safir stood by its report.
On November 28, the Egyptian Foreign Ministry again rejected the Al-Safir report, noting: "These reports exist solely in the imagination of those who disseminate them, and their purpose is clear to all." A ministry spokesman added that before Egypt sends soldiers or equipment outside its borders, constitutional and administrative steps must be taken, and such steps "are not carried out in secret or without the knowledge of the Egyptian people."
Another sign of Syria-Egypt rapprochement is that Egypt is the first country that Syria has allowed to participate in efforts to help Aleppo residents. In late October, Egyptian chargé d'affaires in Damascus Muhammad Selim, said that in coordination with the Syrian Foreign Ministry and the UN, Egypt would be participating in rescue efforts in Aleppo and would oversee the evacuation of injured and elderly residents via safe routes established by the Syrian regime and Russia in the east of the city. This, he said, is an expression of "the esteem" in which Egypt is held "by all sides."
Al-Ahram Articles Expressing Approval Of Improved Egypt-Syria Relations
Egypt And Syria Have A Golden Opportunity To Redraw The Middle East
Egypt's desire for rapprochement with Syria was also expressed by articles published by the official Egyptian daily Al-Ahram. The articles called on the Egyptian regime to improve its relations with Syria in light of the new situation created by the election of Donald Trump as U.S. president, and the joint challenges that they face, and in order to reposition Egypt as leader of the Arab world.
In one article, Egyptian journalist Ilhami Al-Maligi called on both countries to take advantage of the historic opportunity presented to them by Donald Trump's election victory in order to join forces and work to shape the Middle East as they see fit. He wrote: "Egypt-Syria relations have long been characterized by an inexplicable lack of clarity, even though what they have in common goes deeper than any of their natural disagreements.
"The disconnect between the countries was never serious, perhaps because everyone knows that even if relations have deteriorated, the blood ties between them are too strong to be undermined by political alienation. Moreover, the greater the disputes between the countries, the stronger their relations became [after each crisis]. This was clear after the schism in late 1961. Everyone predicted that the collapse of the Unified Arab Republic would be the first step towards a final disconnect between the countries - but it turned out to be one of the first steps towards the October 1973 war, which yielded the Arabs' first military victory over Israel.
"Despite this entire shared historical relationship, and the popular cohesion that is impossible to undo, the overall description of the official relations between the countries was always that they were not as good as they could be, [but] also not so bad that they were totally cut off. This is like a voluntary rift in a family, in which two brothers continue living their lives on the same path, but each does so separately from the other. After all, what first comes to mind when you think of Egypt and Syria? Fraternity and unity...
"[Egypt and Syria] have a long shared history that offers no explanation for this lengthy period of cool [relations]. Although over the past decade Egypt has had four different presidents, nothing has changed on the official level. I say 'official,' because the two peoples' love for and unity with each other has never waned. Even Syrians who have left their country for other places around the world because of this recent crisis have not flourished anywhere as they have in Egypt...
"In my opinion, there will be no better chance in history for the two countries to once again take [a joint step] like in October 1973 - a chance for the countries to lift the fog... and reorganize the region. Egypt is currently the only country that enjoys the kind of popular and official support that enables it to act to stop the events in Syria, with all their regional implications, and turn them into a new October victory...
"Trump's election to the U.S. presidency, and [the U.S.'s] inward focus for at least the foreseeable future, present a golden opportunity for all residents of the region, and especially for the two poles of the Arabs' [power], to get rid of the new Middle East that is planned [for them] and instead to plan the Middle East that they want. Today, not a single obstacle is preventing the two countries from remembering their shared national anthem..."
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Al-Ahram columnist Dr. Gamal Zahran assessed that the Trump presidency will lead to a substantial change in the region, and called it Egypt's great chance to regain its role as a leader of the Arab world, including by reviving its relations with Syria. He wrote: "The clear engine of initiative in Egypt's foreign policy is to maximize the Egyptian diplomatic activity of the past three years. Egypt's support for the Russian role in Syria, which culminated with the vote in favor of the Russian and French [Security Council] resolution, is a step towards reformulating the Egyptian role in the region. Therefore, we require an urgent initiative to raise [Egypt's] diplomatic representation in Syria to the level of delegation head. [The fact that this has not happened] yet is a mark of shame for Egyptian diplomacy.
"It is also time to end our woefully inadequate [diplomatic] representation in Iran. We must raise that as well, in order to serve the public interest. It is odd that the Gulf states are pressuring Egypt not to raise the level of diplomatic representation with Iran while they all have diplomatic relations with it. Is it not odd that their [obvious] goal is to minimize Egypt's regional role?!
"[There is a need for] a great Egyptian effort that reformulates Egypt's regional role in light of new regional and international developments, and in light of the election of a new U.S. president with views similar to ours, and in light of a Russian president, Putin, who is a true supporter of the Arabs' problems, and of Egypt in particular. This effort is not just necessary, but certain [to come about]..."
Egypt And Syria Need To Collaborate, Because Of The Shared Challenges They Face
Al-Ahram columnist Dr. Riad Sanih called on Egyptians to learn from Syria how to prevail in the face of scheming and pressure, arguing that the two countries should collaborate in light of the shared challenges that they face: "Egypt-Syria [relations] are not like those between other countries. The characteristics of daily life and the enemies that they share make them similar. Therefore, it is important to study well this case [of the Syria crisis] in order to thwart the schemes and stop the conspirators.
"Terrorism in Egypt and Syria is not the only clear danger threatening both... We must collaborate and act together, with a single strategy, so that our countries can emerge [from the current situation] with the upper hand and deliver a defeat to anyone who wants to harm them and bring destruction to them. The economic siege, in all its forms, may be one of the common denominators of Egypt and Syria, as part of the plot to divide both of them and to plunge them into long wars and internal conflict that will harm their decision-making and bring them under the Zionist hegemony so that it can implement its satanic policies regarding our nation and region...
"Egypt and Syria are the two branches of the Arab nation, and neither can develop without the other. This is understood well by all the foreign conspirators, who use the same scenarios, one after the other - from sending groups of armed mercenaries to spread destruction, to implementing an economic siege to tighten the noose around the people so as to create chaos, which will damage society's cohesion and allow foreign countries to infiltrate the centers of pressure and operate in these societies.
"Together, Syria and Egypt are dealing with an aggressive war by armed terrorist gangs, and suffering from economic siege, political pressure, and media smear campaigns. They must collaborate and learn from the experience of the immediate past and of the distant past."
Criticism Of Al-Sisi's Expression Of Support For Syrian Army
Al-Watan Columnist: Egypt Must Not Intervene In Syria
Al-Sisi's statements in support of the Syrian army triggered shock and criticism from several journalists, including some who are considered his supporters. Thus, Dr. Mahmoud Khalil, a columnist for the independent Al-Watan daily, called on Egypt to refrain from any intervention in Syria, in favor of any side, and to be politically prudent so as to avoid creating crises vis-à-vis other countries. He wrote: "The decision maker did well to keep Egypt from stepping into the Syrian quagmire, which is no less dangerous than the Yemeni quagmire. Egypt refused to send troops [to Yemen] despite pressure from Saudi Arabia, because everyone knows that the sending of ground troops to Yemen in the 1960s had a negative effect on [Egypt] and caused us unnecessary problems. Just as we do not want anyone intervening in our affairs, we must not intervene in the affairs of others. The Syrian people has the right to decide its own fate, because no matter how oppressive the Syrian regime is, it will not continue to rule if the Syrian people decides [that it must go].
"The Egyptian decision-maker took a political stance on the events in Syria in [complete] disregard of the anger that could be sparked in the Gulf by this blunt expression of Egypt's position. It is very important for Egypt's decision-making to be independent, but it is even more important for political positions to be based on careful political consideration, especially in matters that are not our concern."
Al-Watan columnist 'Imad Al-Din Adib wrote: "When President Al-Sis says that his country supports every official army of every regime, including Syria's, does he mean that he supports the Bashar Al-Assad regime? It is not our [role] to interpret the president's remarks; only he can provide the full, clear, and ultimate context of his remarks, whether it is today, tomorrow, or the next day." Adib added that Al-Sisi's support of the national army is understandable, since he himself belongs to one, but asked: "Should we consider Bashar Al-Assad's army as a national army, or as the army of a tyrannical regime?!..."
Al-Wafd Columnist: The President Must Clarify Egypt's Position On Syria
Alaa' 'Oraibi, a columnist for the Al-Wafd party newspaper, wrote: "It appears that the Egyptian position regarding the Syria situation is unclear and highly confusing for many countries, Arab and foreign, large and small. No one knows exactly who Egypt opposes and who it supports. Does it support the demands of the Syrian people, or Bashar Al-Assad remaining in power? Does it support the opposition, or the attack on cities and civilians? Does it treat the armed opposition the same as Jabhat Al-Nusra and other terrorists, or does it only oppose Al-Qaeda? Does it support Bashar [Al-Assad] as a way of taunting Saudi Arabia and the American administration, or out of fear of a terrorist threat to its national security?... What kind of support is this and what is its scope? The president should clarify and explain."
Al-Misriyyoun Editor: The President's Decision To Support The Syrian Army Is Unconstitutional
Mahmoud Sultan, an editor at the Islamic daily Al-Misriyyoun, which is considered an opponent of Al-Sisi, expressed harsher criticism of Al-Sisi's support for the Syrian army, directing it at the president himself, on the grounds that this support was a political decision of the president's, not a decision by the military establishment, and therefore Al-Sisi is exclusively responsible for it and for the consequences. He wrote:
"The president's remarks regarding his support for the army of Bashar Al-Assad is the first official Egyptian statement on Egypt's participation in the Syrian crisis, and clearly indicates that there is [Egyptian] support [for Assad]. When we speak of the Syrian army, we speak of militarily supporting it... but we do not yet know the type, scope, and mode of this support: Does it mean arming [the Syrians] or that Egyptian forces are participating?... Whether such support actually exists... or whether it is still in the preparatory stages, we must conduct a legal and constitutional debate on this matter. Can the president officially declare his military support for Bashar's army without asking the National Defense Council for its position on this, and without the approval of two thirds of parliament?
"Some may ask: What parliament do you mean? After all, parliament is kind of rubber stamp for presidential [decisions], and if he presents it with a decision to fight in Syria, it will unanimously pass it. Still, disregarding [parliament] raises the question of how much respect for state institutions the president actually has...
"This decision by Al-Sisi to support Bashar's army in this way is unconstitutional. We expect the president to be more sensitive to the sanctity of Egyptian and Syrian blood. May the criminal Bashar, the murderer of his people and the destroyer of his country, go to hell."
* N. Mozes is a research fellow at MEMRI.
 See MEMRI Inquiry & Analysis No. 1274, "The Egypt-Saudi Dispute Over A Resolution To The Syria Crisis Goes Public," October 18, 2016.
 Al-Quds Al-Arabi (London), November 21, 2016.
 Al-Yawm Al-Sabi' (Egypt), November 23, 2016.
 SANA (Syria), November 21, 2016.
 Al-Watan (Syria), November 24, 2016.
 Al-Ba'th (Syria), November 24, 2016.
 Dp-news.com, November 23, 2016.
 Dp-news.com, November 23, 2016.
 Al-Hayat (London), November 14, 2016.
 Tasnimnews.com, November 3, 2016.
 Al-Safir (Lebanon), November 25, 2016.
 Al-Jarida (Kuwait), November 25, 2016.
 Al-Safir (Lebanon), November 25, 2016.
 Al-Ahram (Egypt), November 28, 2016.
 Al-Watan (Egypt), October 20, 2016.
 Al-Maligi was previously accused of supporting the Assad regime, and one Syrian oppositionist website even called him "one of the godfathers of the Assad gang in Cairo." All4syria.info, July 29, 2012.
 Referring to Syria's secession from the United Arab Republic - a political union between Egypt and Syria established in 1958.
 Al-Ahram (Egypt), November 15, 2016.
 Egypt's vote in favor of the Russian resolution at the Security Council on October 8, 2016 caused unprecedented tension with Saudi Arabia. See MEMRI Inquiry & Analysis Series Report No. 1274, The Egypt-Saudi Dispute Over A Resolution To The Syria Crisis Goes Public, October 18, 2016.
 Al-Ahram (Egypt), November 24, 2016.
 Al-Ahram (Egypt), November 18, 2016.
 Al-Watan (Egypt), November 28, 2016.
 Al-Watan (Egypt), November 24, 2016.
 Al-Wafd (Egypt), November 24, 2016.
 Al-Misriyyoun (Egypt), November 24, 2016.