With the Gulf crisis hanging between escalation and mediation, Cairo’s position towards Qatar is governed by two factors. The first is Qatar’s record of antagonistic behaviour towards Egypt, the second the close strategic relationship Egypt enjoys with influential Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) members Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain.
Moetaz Salama, director of the Gulf Studies Unit at Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies, argues that Cairo is lending important support to its chief allies on the GCC while simultaneously pursuing its own interests with regard to Qatar’s divisive foreign policy.
“Egypt’s current escalation against Qatar comes in the framework of Egyptian policy and interests. If influential parties in the region such as Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain have come to the conclusions Egypt reached years ago — that Qatar is a supporter of terrorism, something now generally accepted in the international area — then this is a major strategic gain for Egypt,” says Salama.
He argues that Egypt is taking the wisest course by building on its interests in the Gulf “which surpass in importance any interests Egypt has with other parties or regional blocs”.
“That Gulf countries have moved towards supporting Cairo’s viewpoint in the end is the result of immense Egyptian efforts which succeeded in driving home to the world that Qatar is a supporter of terrorism.”
Salama adds that the importance of the mutual support between Egypt and the three GCC states in the course of this move should not be underestimated.
Gulf mediators, led by Kuwait, have stepped forward to help resolve the crisis. Mediation efforts have failed so far but this has not prevented a plethora of initiatives being proposed from all quarters of the international community. Is it not in Egypt’s interest to support such efforts, since the alternative could be to drive Qatar into the embrace of Iran and Turkey, thus driving the crisis to the brink?
“I believe that it is in Egypt’s interests for the crisis to be resolved in a manner that satisfies the demands our Gulf brothers have made of Qatar. If Doha agrees to the conditions proposed then it is in Egypt’s interests, and in the interests of Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain, to reconcile,” says Salama.
"It is not in Egypt’s interests to involve itself in a way that reduces the chances of a settlement or triggers sensitivities. If Egypt is asked to contribute to efforts to reach a settlement between Qatar and its neighbours it would not hesitate.
“We need to remember Qatar is the one that meddled in Egyptian affairs,” stresses Salama.
Some commentators argue a settlement is impossible under the current Qatari regime. They point to the events of 2014 when Riyadh asked Qatar to halt propaganda incitement against Cairo and support for extremist groups in Egypt. Qatar promised to do so only to renege following the death of king Abdullah. It is a history, they say, that shows tinkering with Qatari policies will not solve the problem with Cairo.
Salama is less pessimistic.
“Qatar hasn’t blocked the pathway to a return to its fellow GCC members. The crisis is still being managed in Doha without Al-Jazeera attacking Riyadh though it has attacked the UAE. But if any internal changes in Qatar result in the same type of policies, and the same political outlook, the three GGC countries and Egypt will find it difficult to accept," he said.
"We are aware of how patient our Gulf brothers have been with Qatar, how many times they warned it and the efforts they exerted to reach a settlement before the current crisis erupted.
"Riyadh and Abu Dhabi are contending with many complicated calculations. They will not settle for anything less than a radical overhaul of Qatari strategy. Doha has to abandon its regional policies and its support for the Muslim Brotherhood’s project. If it does not it is difficult to see how it can continue within the status quo of Gulf reality.”
Washington’s involvement in the crisis — the US has relations with all parties — will be important in determining how it unfolds.
“The position adopted by the US will be significant. Judging from President [Donald] Trump’s position expressed in statements last Saturday in which he accused Qatar of supporting terrorism and underscored the country’s history in doing so, it is clear that the American stance is critical.
“And it is hard to imagine Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain stopping mid-course after the steps they have already taken. I think that when they decided to act against Qatar they had already factored in a variety of responses and scenarios, one being Doha’s refusal to retreat from its current policies.
"In other words they see the current crisis as a time to settle, once and for all, their differences with Qatar. This is a turning point, one in which Qatar will have to shift its position because it is hard to imagine the three GCC countries backing down and allowing the crisis to end with everything the same as it was.”
*This article was first published in Al-Ahram Weekly