June 16 (Bloomberg) -- Egyptian President Mohamed Mursi cut ties with Syria and sent his foreign minister to Ethiopia over a dam dispute as the Islamist leader flexed political muscle two weeks before he faces mass rallies against his rule.
In suspending diplomatic relations with Syria and calling for a no-fly zone over the war-ravaged country, Mursi builds on earlier efforts to paint himself as a leader trying to reclaim Egypt’s position as an Arab political powerhouse. The move drew a sharp rebuke from Syria, which said he was pandering to U.S. and Israeli interests in the region.
Egypt and its army will stand by the Syrian people “until their rights are granted and a new elected leadership is chosen,” Mursi told a stadium packed with Islamist supporters on June 15 as he took direct aim at Hezbollah, the Lebanon-based and Iran-backed Shiite militia that has joined the fight against Syrian rebels. “Today we stand against Hezbollah for Syria.”
More than two years after the uprising that ousted his predecessor Hosni Mubarak, Mursi faces rising criticism over his stewardship of the economy and the polarization in the Arab world’s most populous nation. Secular and youth activists have called for mass anti-government demonstrations at the end of the month designed to strip him of legitimacy and build pressure for early presidential elections.
Mursi used his speech to assail his detractors, spearheaded by the Tamarod or “Rebel” campaign. He repeated that the push for protests was backed by former regime supporters, and said there are those who are “delusionary” and who want to undercut the “stability” that is growing day by day.
Egypt has decided to close the Syrian embassy in Cairo and is also recalling its envoy from Damascus, Mursi said. Syria condemned the decisions as “irresponsible” and reflective of Mursi’s “attempt to implement the Muslim Brotherhood’s agenda,” the state-run Syrian News Agency reported, citing an unidentified senior government official. The official said Mursi’s call for a no-fly zone violated Syria’s sovereignty and aimed to “serve the goals of Israel and the U.S.”
The opposition has criticized Mursi’s government for its inability to work to block Ethiopia’s construction of a dam that Egyptians say may curtail their country’s access to vital Nile River water.
The U.S.-trained engineer’s approval rating continued its decline. By the end of his 11th month in office, 42 percent of respondents to a poll taken by the Egyptian Center for Public Opinion Research, or Baseera, voiced approval for him compared with 46 percent in the prior month. Of the 2,051 people surveyed, 54 percent said they supported early presidential elections, Baseera reported in a poll released on its website. The survey, conducted May 29 and May 30, had a margin of error of less than 3 percent.
Mursi’s critics argue the dam dispute is an example of the government’s inability to steer the country forward or safeguard its interests. The Syria decision, while juxtaposed with a growing international outcry against the regime of Bashar al-Assad, was seen as another attempt by the president to obscure his domestic challenges.
Cutting relations with Assad’s regime is a necessity though it shouldn’t be used as a “political maneuver” ahead of June 30 to secure satisfaction and mobilize Salafi support against those who want change, Amr Hamzawy, a secular former lawmaker, said on his Twitter account. “This is a presidency that presents evidence every day of its failure.”
Foreign Minister Mohamed Kamel Amr was scheduled to meet Ethiopian officials today to discuss the dam project and voice Egypt’s reservations, including concerns with its design, the state-run Ahram Online reported. Mursi’s secretary for foreign affairs, Khaled Al-Qazzaz, told foreign reporters on June 13 that Egypt supported African nations’ rights to develop, though he emphasized that their development couldn’t and shouldn’t come at Egypt’s expense.
To contact the reporter on this story: Tarek El-Tablawy in Cairo at firstname.lastname@example.org
To contact the editor responsible for this story: Andrew J. Barden at email@example.com