Damascus, Syria • Syria’s embattled president said Thursday that Arab identity is back on the right track after the fall from power of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, which he contends had used religion for its own political gain.
Bashar Assad’s comments to the Al-Baath newspaper, the mouthpiece of his ruling Baath party, came a week after Egypt’s military ousted Islamist President Mohammed Morsi as millions took to the streets to urge his removal. Morsi was Egypt’s first freely elected president.
Assad is facing an insurgency at home and has refused to step down, calling the revolt an international conspiracy carried out by Islamic extremists and fundamentalist groups such as the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood — a branch of the Egyptian group with the same name to which Morsi belongs.
"The Muslim Brotherhood and those who are like them take advantage of religion and use it as a mask," Assad said. "They consider that when you don’t stand with them politically, then you are not standing with God."
Assad’s comments mark the second time in a week that he has gloated publically about Morsi’s fall. In an interview with another state-run daily last Thursday, he praised the massive protests by Egyptians against their Islamist leader and said Morsi’s overthrow meant the end of "political Islam."
Last month Morsi enraged Syrian officials by announcing he was severing ties with Damascus and closing its embassy in the Syrian capital.
Assad’s father, the late President Hafez Assad, cracked down on a Muslim Brotherhood-led rebellion in the northern city of Hama in 1982. The Syrian forces, led by the then-president’s brother and special forces from their minority Alawite sect, razed much of the city in a three-week air and ground attack, killing between 10,000 and 20,000 people.
"Arab identity is back in the right track," Assad said in the interview with Al-Baath. "It is returning after the fall of the Muslim Brotherhood and after these political trends that use religions for their narrow interests have been revealed."
Earlier this week, Egypt restricted the ability of Syrians to enter the country, with officials citing reports that a large number of Syrians were backing the Muslim Brotherhood in the bloody standoff with the military over Morsi’s ouster.
Also on Thursday, the Syrian government started buying up local currency and raising penalties for black-market deals to try to stop the fall of the pound, which has tumbled to record lows against the U.S. dollar, the state-run news agency SANA said.
Syria’s move Wednesday came as the currency hit a record low, reaching 310 pounds to the dollar compared with 47 pounds to the dollar when the country’s crisis began 28 months ago.
The record drop of the pound happened on the first day of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, when observant Muslims fast from dawn to dusk. Many Syrians are struggling with soaring prices because of the tumbling currency.
SANA said the government approved a bill Wednesday that criminalizes business deals in currencies other than the pound, with penalties ranging from three to 10 years in prison.
The bill also seeks to prevent manipulation of prices in the market and "curb exploitation of citizens’ needs," SANA said.
SANA also quoted Central Bank Gov. Adib Mayyaleh as saying that the monetary regulator sold $50 million to foreign exchange companies Wednesday at the rate of 247.5 pounds to the dollar. The official rate still stands at 104 pounds to the dollar, though it is widely ignored even by the state, and on Thursday it was trading at 260 to the dollar.
The currency began a sharp descent last month after the U.S. decision to arm Syrian rebels. A recent report by the International Crisis Group suggested that although the Syrian pound faces increasing pressure, it "has not entirely collapsed."
"Authorities still distribute salaries to public servants and fund the military-security apparatus," the report said.
Syria is believed to have relied heavily on Iran to support its economy. Private media in the region have reported Iran supplied Assad’s regime with billions of dollars since the crisis began in March 2011, and Syria’s SANA recently acknowledged $1 billion in aid.
The Syrian civil war has killed more than 93,000 people, according to the United Nations, and displaced millions more. The northern city of Aleppo, once Syria’s commercial center, has witnessed deadly fighting, shelling and air raids since July last year.
When the conflict began, the government had some $17 billion in foreign currency reserves. But that figure has dropped from blows to two main pillars of the economy: oil exports, which used to bring in up to $8 million per day, and tourism, which accounted for $8 billion in 2010. The U.S. and the European Union bans on oil imports are estimated to cost Syria about $400 million a month.
Syrian officials haven’t said how much cash is left in the nation’s reserves.
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