Is Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood backing a jihad in Syria? (+video)

The Sunni Islamist movement behind Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi has called for a mass rally in support of Syria's rebellion. Sectarian tensions over the war there are growing hotter.

By , Staff writer

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    Qaradawi says it's time to fight. So does Washington, kind of.
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It's a typically sweltering summer in Egypt, and the Muslim Brotherhood has failed to repair an inadequate electricity network, reach a badly needed loan agreement with the IMF, or repair fraying relations with the United States.

But amid the heat and anger, the movement that catapulted President Mohamed Morsi to power last year has bigger fish to fry. Namely, joining the increasingly heated Shiite-Sunni sectarian rhetoric around the Syrian civil war.

Speaking in plainly sectarian terms, Muslim Brotherhood spokesman Ahmed Aref told Reuters that "throughout history, Sunnis have never been involved in starting a sectarian war" and that the movement backed a declaration issued by a group of regional clerics on Thursday that called for "jihad with mind, money, weapons - all forms of jihad" in Syria.

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While his history is a little shaky, or at least one-sided, the increasingly intolerant religious rhetoric around the war in Syria is worth paying attention too. The Muslim Brotherhood frequently insists that it's separate from the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) that it founded and is now headed by Morsi, a long-term Brotherhood stalwart. But in practice the two are inseparable, and this kind of talk is dangerous.

The Brotherhood's belligerent rhetoric would appear to match the Obama administration's shift on arming Syria's rebels. But the way they're talking about the war in Syria - with calls for jihad, rooted in anti-Shiite enmity - will not be giving many people in Washington the warm and fuzzies.

The powerful involvement of jihadi groups like the Jabhat al-Nusra, which the Obama administration designated a terrorist group at the end of last year, has been a key reason the US has been so reluctant to provide direct military aid to the rebellion. The US fears that weapons it supplies will end up in jihadi hands and that the consequences, if such groups prove decisive in driving Bashar al-Assad and his cronies from power, will not be entirely to American likings.

While the US and close friend Israel have been at odds with Assad's Baath regime in Syria for years, there's no guarantee that what could replace him would be more to either country's taste. And the willingness of Egypt, which overthrew its long-standing secular dictator in 2011, to apparently countenance support of Sunni jihadi groups, also contains seeds of warning.

Hosni Mubarak's Egypt fought for years against Al Qaeda style militant groups at home, and worried about blow back from militants going abroad to fight in foreign jihads and bringing their ideals home. Ayman al-Zawahiri, who took the reins of Al Qaeda after the killing of Osama bin Laden, is an Egyptian and former leader of the country's Islamic Jihad.

And while Zawahiri and Al Qaeda hate the Muslim Brotherhood for its embrace of electoral democracy and what they consider other ideological deviations, the new Egypt is far more comfortable, it seems, with taking the risk of allowing people to go fight abroad than the old one. An aide to President Morsi told Reuters that the government was not sending fighters to Syria but "could not stop Egyptians from traveling and would not penalize any who went to Syria. 

Morsi may further clarify his position tomorrow, when he's scheduled to speak at a Syria solidarity conference and mass rally in Cairo tomorrow. Also at the event will be influential Muslim Brotherhood preacher Yusuf al-Qaradawi, who has already called for jihad in Syria, and Saudi preacher Mohamed al-Arifi, who has in the past praised Osama bin Laden, called for jihad in a sermon in Cairo today. Another influential Saudi preacher appeared to call for jihad at Mecca's Grand Mosque today as well.

Sunni-Shiite rivalry has rarely been far from the surface in the modern Middle East, as Saudi Arabia's jockeying with Iran for regional influence over the years, and the horrific toll of the Sunni-Shiite war that followed the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, make clear.

But now in this hot summer, the rivalry is being stoked again by the horrors of Syria's civil war. And while religious fervor may end up (or not, who knows?) turning the tide for the rebellion in Syria, it's likely to reverberate back out across the region in unpleasant ways.

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