DAMASCUS, Syria -- As millions of Egyptians celebrated in the streets of Cairo the ouster of their Islamist president, Syria’s state-run television broadcast with glee footage of jubilant Egyptian crowds. “It is clear the people do not want political Islam,” said the announcer.
But the mood in the Syrian capital Damascus could not be farther away from the excitement in Cairo’s Tahrir Square. In Damascus, darkness had set in by eight o’clock on Wednesday, and hardly anyone could be seen in the streets. Loud blasts of regime shelling from tanks and missile batteries situated in the hills around Damascus periodically pierced the eerie silence.
In this regard, it was a typical evening for Damascus, a depressed and afraid city for many months now.
However, inside the privacy of homes, Damascenes expressed a variety of views on the ouster of Egyptian president Mohammed Morsi.
One middle-aged woman who considers herself secular said she was glad to see Morsi go, but worried about the ramifications of what appeared to be a military coup.
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“I can’t stand the Muslim Brotherhood, but Morsi was legitimately elected. So, are the Egyptians going to oust an elected president every year now?” she said.
Regardless of what the future might hold, opponents of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad seemed in awe of the Egyptian army, which they were quick to compare to its Syrian counterpart.
“See what happens when the army is with the people?” said Safa, 30, referring to the Egyptian military’s swift ouster of Morsi. “Not like our army, which keeps shelling and bombing us. Just imagine how far we could go if our own military stood by our side.”
One religious man in his 70s who, for years, has been a staunch opponent of the Assad regime, said he, too, was grateful.
“Good riddance. Let everyone see how terrible the Muslim Brotherhood are. Let’s hope our opposition will learn a thing or two from this, and not let our own Brotherhood party get in the way.”
He was referring to the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, which went deep underground and into exile in the 1980s after President Assad’s late father, Hafez, brutally crushed the movement. The group today is part of the fractious Syrian opposition.
The Syrian MB reacted to Morsi’s ouster with dismay, and a warning. “We refuse the coup against legitimacy,” the group said in a tweet. “If elections take place in [the] Syria of the future, after the fall of [the Assad] regime, then everyone must accept the result, and no one has the right to overthrow it.”
Syrian rebels, who started off two years ago as a grassroots armed movement of everyday people, often seeking to protect their property and loved ones, have morphed into a cacophony of international volunteers answering a call for jihad in Syria alongside criminal gangs and Syrian Islamist groups.
The most organized and well-funded among them is the al-Qaeda-affiliated Jabhat al Nusra, which holds substantial ground in the north, including the provincial capital of Raqqa. There, many locals have been complaining about battle-hardened Nusra men attempting to enforce Wahhabi-style Islamic rule, a puritanical interpretation of Islam that condemns most of Syria’s Islamic traditions. Recent footage of Nusra men destroying Sufi shrines in Raqqa left many locals horrified.
Perhaps no one was more thrilled by the events in Egypt than Assad himself, who published an irony-laden interview in the state-run newspaper Al Thawra, which incidentally means Revolution in Arabic. (The newspaper just celebrated its 50th anniversary and is an early Baathist era relic.)
“The summary of what is happening in Egypt is the fall of what is called political Islam,” Assad said.
“Whoever brings religion to use in politics or in favor of one group at the expense of another will fall anywhere in the world...We saw the MB rule as a failure from the start.”
Assad has always warned that his presumably secular regime is the only alternative to Islamic rule, which he has ominously warned would triumph in a post-Assad Syria.
The Syrian opposition, with all its fractious and diverse politics, generally agrees that the Assad regime has tried to use the Islamist card to firghten Syria’s regional neighbors and world leaders into shunning Syria’s uprising. Many point to Russia’s seemingly unconditional support of Assad as a case in point, saying it stems from Moscow’s (erroneous, they say) conviction that only Islamists will end up ruling Syria should Assad’s reign come to an end.
Assad has always dismissed the notion that the Syrian people have revolted, and instead claims that the unrest in Syria is due to an ongoing international conspiracy.
Asked if he thought the Muslim Brotherhood duped the Egyptian people into believing that Egypt would be better off as an Islamist state than during the relatively secular Mubarak era, Assad quoted an American president, Abraham Lincoln: “You can fool some people some times, but you can’t fool all the people all the time." And, added the Syrian president, "certainly not the people of Egypt, which carries thousands of years of civilization.”