“Before, we would have to sneak fighters out of the country,” said Mohammed Hassan Hamed, a spokesman for Gamaa Islamiya, a radical Islamist group that waged an insurgency against the Egyptian government before officially renouncing violence in 2003. “But now it’s more comfortable for fighters to go to Syria. If they live through the war and come back, they know they are not going to be prosecuted.”
That, Hassan hastened to add, “is not a reason for Americans to be afraid.” Unlike in Afghanistan and Iraq, he said, the United States and the jihadi fighters are on the same side in this war.
But to many secular Egyptians, it is terrifying. “They’re going to get weapons and training, and one day they could come back to fight us,” said Khaled Salah, editor in chief of the secular-minded Youm7 newspaper.
Tellingly, Egyptian moderates such as Salah have been the loudest critics of Morsi’s decision to back the rebels. Liberal Egyptians who overthrew their own autocratic leader had been sympathetic with the uprising against Assad early on. But many now say they don’t know which side to support and think that Egypt should stay out of what they see as a sectarian conflict.
“The Middle East is shifting from a region that was dreaming of democracy to a battlefield between Shiite and Sunni,” Salah said. “It’s very dangerous.”
Syria, where the United Nations says 93,000 people have died since the conflict began two years ago, is not the only sectarian battlefield in the region. Iraq has seen an escalation of tit-for-tat killings in recent weeks, and an upsurge in violence in Lebanon has sparked fears that the war in Syria is spilling past its western border.
But Syria is undoubtedly the central fight in a dispute that dates to the 7th century, when followers of the prophet Muhammad fought over the line of succession after his death.
The region’s turn to sectarianism intensified late last month, when Hasan Nasrallah, leader of the Shiite Lebanese political party and militia Hezbollah, announced that the group was going all-in to support Assad and belittled Syria’s predominantly Sunni rebels as agents of Israel and the United States. About the same time, Iran acknowledged that its Revolutionary Guard Corps forces were operating inside Syria in support of the government. Iraqi Shiites, too, have joined the fight.
Both Iran and Hezbollah have been instrumental in recent battles that have turned momentum toward Assad. Far from conceding defeat, Sunni clerics across the region have rallied to the rebel cause. Yousuf al-Qaradawi, a charismatic Egyptian preacher who is influential within the Muslim Brotherhood, condemned Hezbollah as “the party of Satan” and sought to goad his fellow Sunnis into action.