CAIRO (AP) — Egypt's Islamist president announced Saturday that he was cutting off diplomatic relations with Syria and closing Damascus' embassy in Cairo, decisions made amid growing calls from hard-line Sunni clerics in Egypt and elsewhere to launch a "holy war" against Syria's embattled regime.
Mohammed Morsi told thousands of supporters at a rally in Cairo that his government was also withdrawing the Egyptian charge d'affaires from Damascus. He called on Lebanon's Hezbollah to leave Syria, where the Iranian-backed Shiite militant group has been fighting alongside troops loyal to embattled President Bashar Assad against the mostly Sunni rebels.
"Hezbollah must leave Syria. This is serious talk: There is no business or place for Hezbollah in Syria," said Morsi, Egypt's first freely elected president. Assad's regime, he said, will have no place in the future of Syria after committing what Morsi called "horrors" against its people.
Morsi's address, particularly his call on Hezbollah to leave Syria, and the fiery rhetoric used by well-known Muslim clerics this weekend point to the increasing perception of the Syrian conflict as sectarian. At least 93,000 people have been killed since turmoil there began more than two years ago.
The rally that Morsi addressed on Saturday was called for by hardline Islamists loyal to the Egyptian president to show solidarity with the people of Syria. Morsi addressed the rally after several hardline Islamist clerics spoke, all of whom called on him to do everything he could to help the Syrian rebels. Those attending the rally, about 20,000, chanted for solidarity with the Syrians, but occasionally deviated to shout slogans in support of Morsi.
The Egyptian president picked up a flag of the Syrian revolution and another of Egypt and waved them to the crowd as he entered the indoor stadium in a Cairo suburb.
Morsi also used the occasion to warn his opponents at home against the use of violence in mass protests planned for June 30, the anniversary of his assumption to power. Before he spoke, one hardline cleric, Mohammed Abdel-Maqsoud, recited an often repeated Muslim prayer against the "enemies" of God and Islam but used it to refer to the June 30 protesters.
The climate in the Cairo indoor stadium where the rally was held appeared to further entrench the division of Egypt into two camps: one led by Morsi, his Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist groups, and the other grouping the secular and liberal opposition together with moderate Muslims, minority Christians and a large percentage of women.