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Tuesday, 02 March 2021

Cairo-Doha: Conditional ties

Reconciliation with Qatar may not have been part of Egypt’s foreign policy, but now it has happened Cairo is determined to make it work

Dina Ezzat , Saturday 30 Jan 2021
Cairo-Doha: Conditional ties
Direct flights between Cairo and Doha resume
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It will probably take a few weeks for Egypt to send an ambassador to Doha following last week’s restoration of diplomatic relations between the two countries, said an Egyptian government official. “The embassy has reopened and the chargé d’affaires is supervising until an ambassador arrives,” he added.

“Most likely the nomination for a new ambassador will be included in the list of diplomatic postings that usually comes out late spring every year — or a little later. For the Egyptian government to decide to send an ambassador earlier he would have to have strong reasons to believe Qatar is ready to accommodate Egypt’s concerns.”

Last week, Egypt and Qatar signed two memoranda to allow for the resumption of diplomatic relations. Egypt, along with Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, severed diplomatic ties with Qatar in June 2017 in protest at what the four countries said was Doha’s support for terrorist groups intent on destabilising them.

The resumption of diplomatic relations was decided during a Gulf Cooperation Council summit attended by Egypt. The summit was hosted, on an extraordinary basis, by Saudi Arabia after Oman passed the rotating presidency to its more influential neighbour.

The signing of a declaration promising the full normalisation of relations between the four countries and Qatar did not include details of any Qatari commitment to meet the 13 conditions the four countries had earlier stipulated were necessary before the boycott could be ended. The conditions included closing the Iranian Embassy in Doha, halting all forms of military cooperation with Turkey, shutting down Al-Jazeera and ending any ties with the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist groups.

In press statements issued after the summit, Saudi Foreign Minister Faisal bin Farhan Al-Saud said that the spirit adopted during the summit, rather than the actual text that was signed, set the tone for positive engagement between Qatar and the four countries.

“I think it is fair to say that the Saudis were the keenest to restore relations with Qatar. The Emiratis and Bahrainis had to follow because it would have been embarrassing for them before their own public to be opening up relations with Israel while opposing reconciliation with an Arab Gulf state,” said an Arab diplomat.

He added that Riyadh’s interest in turning the page on the boycott fits with Saudi regional calculations which include placing greater pressure on Iran. By welcoming Qatar back in the Arab fold Saudi Arabia hopes to lessen Doha’s dependence on Tehran to which it had turned following the boycott.

The Arab diplomat argues the change in the US administration also played a part in Riyadh’s calculations, given that the White House under Joe Biden is likely to be less aligned with Saudi priorities than it was under Donald Trump.

Cairo “does not wish to rush things” says the Egyptian official, given its outstanding concerns. Certainly, Egypt will keep a close eye on the space Doha allows the Muslim Brotherhood for political action and financial lobbying in Qatar.

To accommodate its close ally Saudi Arabia, Egypt dropped its demand Qatar either hand over or expel Muslim Brotherhood leaders it has hosted since 2013. Yet, according to multiple Egyptian sources, Cairo still expects Doha to curtail their activities.

Cairo will also be carefully examining the editorial line Al-Jazeera adopts on Egyptian affairs. While the four countries’ earlier demand that Al-Jazeera be shut down has now been shelved they still expect changes to the channel’s editorial line.

“Egypt has received some reassurances on this matter” from Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, the two countries most involved in facilitating the reconciliation, says the Arab diplomat.

Egypt will also be hoping to see an end to “political coordination between Qatar and Turkey to meddle in internal Egyptian affairs or lobby international public opinion against the Egyptian” regime, according to the Egyptian official.

Cairo is particularly mindful of two Turkish-based satellite channels whose sole raison d’etre appears to be to attack senior state officials in Egypt. According to Egyptian sources Qatar is the channels’ sole financial backer. While Cairo accepts that these channels are unlikely to be closed down “we expect an end to the offensive language and incitement,” says the Egyptian official.

“It is a matter of assessment. If we find that things are moving in the right direction we will be willing to reciprocate.”

Egypt has, says the official, already suspended its otherwise heavy media attacks against Qatar. “We are doing our part and we are watching carefully. We are sensing the beginning of some change but it is too early” to reach any conclusions.

According to the Arab diplomat, it is “unrealistic” for the four states, with the possible exception of Saudi Arabia, to expect a dramatic change in media coverage. “There will be some tweaking that everybody will sense but any U-turns seem unlikely.”

The same diplomat says Qatar looks set to at least consider some form of economic cooperation with Egypt. “Ideas are being discussed — some investment and maybe the creation of job opportunities. At some point the two sides will have to engage with each other directly and decide where their joint interests lie.”

But for such a dialogue to happen, argues the Egyptian official, things will have to move beyond the bilateral level. Cairo will want to see Doha’s political choices pivot away from what Egypt regards as destabilising regional interventions, particularly when it comes to Qatari support for Islamist movements.

Cairo-based foreign diplomats, however, note that recently Cairo has shown more flexibility over this issue: they point to Egypt’s new-found openness to engage with some of Libya’s non-militant political Islam factions, and to the close Egyptian dialogue with Hamas in Gaza.

“I think the Egyptian-Emirati desire to eliminate all forms of political Islam in this part of the world has been abandoned by both countries,” said one Cairo-based European diplomat. “What counts most for Egypt now is that it sees no support, political or financial, to the Muslim Brotherhood to re-organise in Egypt or to lobby against the political regime.”

It is no secret that resuming diplomatic relations with Qatar was not an Egyptian priority. Cairo’s pragmatic decision to play along was the result of an assessment that if the three Gulf countries were intent on pursuing reconciliation, then Egypt would get a better deal by not being left behind.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 28 January, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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