CAIRO (AP) — A senior official in Egypt's presidency said Thursday that Egyptians are free to join the fight in Syria and will not be prosecuted upon return amid increasingly public calls by leading clerics for Sunni Muslims to back the rebels there with firepower.
In a response to an Associated Press question about the government's stance on citizens going to fight alongside Syrian rebels, Khaled al-Qazzaz said that "the right of travel or freedom of travel is open for all Egyptians," adding that the state was taking no measures against anyone who goes to fight in Syria. He underlined that Egypt seeks a political solution to Syria's conflict and warned of the danger of it becoming a "regional war."
The comments by al-Qazzaz, a foreign affairs adviser to Islamist President Mohammed Morsi, come at a time when clerics have stepped up calls for Sunnis in the Arab world to go to Syria to fight the regime in response to the Lebanese Shiite guerrilla group Hezbollah's overt intervention backing the Syrian military against rebels.
The calls have hiked fears that Syria's civil war will slide deeper into sectarian conflict and that foreign jihadis will take an even greater role in the rebellion. The presence of non-Syrian extremists, some with al-Qaida links, among the rebels has made the U.S. and its allies reluctant to send weapons to the rebellion.
Speaking in a meeting with foreign journalists, al-Qazzaz dismissed worries that Egyptians who fight in Syria could return home as hardened jihadis, even as extremists in the northern Sinai Peninsula continue to wage assassinations and attacks against the police and military there.
"We don't consider them a threat," al-Qazzaz said. "We have a controllable situation in Sinai ... We do not have a situation of returning jihadists."
He said that after the 2011 uprising that toppled longtime autocrat and U.S. ally Hosni Mubarak, Egypt no longer takes part in the CIA's "extraordinary renditions" program, in which Mubarak's government helped detain suspected Islamic militants as part of the U.S.'s war on terror. The program raised allegations of illegal kidnappings and torture of suspects.
"We are no longer a center for rendition, or punishing Egyptians for what they do in other countries," he said.
It is not known how many Egyptians have gone to fight in Syria — and al-Qazzaz said he did not have figures. But organizations from Egypt's ultraconservative Salafi movement are believed to help organize movements for Egyptians who want to join the fight. Islamist websites have reported that up to several dozen Egyptians have been killed while fighting in Syria the past two years, though the number has not been independently confirmed.
The conflict, now in its third year, has killed nearly 93,000 people, according to new figures released by the United Nations.
Earlier this month, influential Egyptian cleric Yusuf al-Qaradawi, who has close ties to the Muslim Brotherhood, urged Sunnis everywhere to join the fight against Syrian President Bashar Assad.
"Everyone who has the ability and has training to kill ... is required to go," said al-Qaradawi, a popular television cleric who is based in Qatar. "We cannot ask our brothers to be killed while we watch."
A group of Muslim clerics, including al-Qaradawi, met in Cairo on Thursday and said it was a religious duty to back the rebels through whatever means possible.
The meeting underlined "the duty of jihad to support our brothers in Syria, with spirit, money and weapons, and all forms of jihad aimed at rescuing the Syrian people from the crimes and killings by the sectarian regime ... everyone according to his ability," hard-line Egyptian cleric Mohammed Hassan said, reading a statement from the group. He said Iran and Hezbollah's support for Assad "against our people in Syria is considered a declaration of war on Muslims in general."
A delegation of clerics then met with Morsi at the presidential palace on Thursday. The Egyptian president plans to attend a large rally in support of the Syrian opposition at Cairo's stadium on Saturday, which has been organized by the senior clerics.
The Muslim Brotherhood, from which Morsi hails, is also calling on people to aid Syrians.
"We call on Arab and Islamic people to stand by their Syrian brothers — those who remain in the country or were forced to flee to other neighboring countries. We should not be unjust, surrender them or let them down. Religion, manhood and chivalry require that we be by their side and support them financially and morally," the group's statement said.
Among the most well-known Egyptians to have died in Syria is a 27 year-old named Yusif Mehrez, who was killed in the western city of Aleppo. Local media carried pictures of him kissing his mother's hand at the airport before flying to Syria to help fight alongside the rebels. A number of videos have also appeared online, purporting to show Egyptian men fighting in Syria. In one video an Egyptian man carrying a rocket-propelled grenade swung over his shoulder is shot by Assad's soldiers during a battle.
The fighting in Syria has turned increasingly sectarian and the largely Sunni Muslim rebels appear to be outgunned by Assad's military, which is backed by Shiite Iran and Russia. It has escalated from a local uprising into a civil war. The rebels, backed by Sunni states Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey, are fighting against a regime that relies on support from Assad's Alawite community, as well as Shiites aided by Iran and Hezbollah.
International efforts to forge a round of peace talks have stalled, including an attempt by Egypt's president to find a solution to the crisis through a so-called Islamic Quartet that includes Egypt, Turkey, Iran and Saudi Arabia.
Al-Qazzaz said that Egypt is looking for a regional solution backed by the international community, and that a political solution is needed. He described what is happening there as "an act against humanity."
"The more we fuel this conflict with weaponry and soldiers, it turns into a regional war," he said.
The hard-line Salafi Nour Party also says Egyptians should be free to help Syrians in combat.
"Egypt, after the revolution, cannot stop anyone doing that because they are not going to upend the legitimacy of a government or carry out terrorist attacks. This is a revolution," said Amr el-Mekky, assistant to the party's chairperson for foreign affairs. But he underlined that any fighters who return home must respect Egyptian law.