The Egyptian government’s announcement that their citizens are free to go join the Syrian civil war, followed up almost immediately by a severing of diplomatic ties with the Syrian government was seen by some as taking a “hard line” on Assad.
Yet the context suggests this is set to be a broader Egyptian policy matter than simply the ongoing war in Syria, and that with the precedent already set that the government is willing to host jihadist citizens who go abroad imposing regime change for religious reasons, it certainly won’t end there.
President Morsi’s election as a moderate Islamist leader aside, elections have shown a broad shift toward Islamist activism among Egypt’s voting public. Morsi’s relatively moderate party won, but a strong second-place showing was had by a Salafist faction with very jihadist sensibilities.
The announcement that Egyptian citizens are free to go join other nations’ civil wars is unquestionably a nod to the Salafists, one made palatable because in this case the West is on the bandwagon for the same jihadist rebels. Egypt is sure to take this precedent on a case-by-case basis, rejecting attacks on other Sunni-dominated religiously-conservative nations, but is certain to use very different criteria than the US or other nations use for regime-change.
Even nations like the US that are on board with the Syria fight aren’t encouraging their citizenry to go al-Qaedaing over there and do it themselves. It’s not altruistic either – it’s just plainly obvious that having large numbers of citizens get combat experience and ties to international terrorism is going to have negative long-term consequences. Egypt’s decision not only sets the stage for more “Egypt brigades” joining other nations’ civil wars, but for a battle-hardened base of jihadists hanging out in Egypt in between. Catering to that may be politically beneficial to Morsi, but is clearly risky.