“We are sceptical but we are going to see; if they keep their word then well and good; we will remain cautious however,” said a senior Egyptian diplomat in remarks shared with Ahram Online on the Egyptian-Qatari rapprochement.
Speaking shortly after Qatar had announced the suspension of its controversial satellite Al Jazeera Mubasher Misr, which had been a political-nagging media instrument for the Egyptian authorities since the ouster of president Mohamed Morsi on July 2013, the senior diplomat said that “closing down Al Jazeera Mubasher is certainly a key demand that has been put forward by Egypt to all mediators, including certainly Saudi Arabia” who had been working to end tension that came with the hospitality that Qatar accorded to leading Muslim Brotherhood figures and the coverage of Al Jazeera satellite channel and Al Jazeera Mubasher Misr of political developments in Egypt since the ouster of Morsi.
Qatar, the same source said, had been procrastinating with the step but a few weeks ago, “it was agreed that the Qataris would start by toning down the language of the coverage then reduce the hours of Al-Jazeera Mubasher to eventually take it off air completely.”
For 18 months Al Jazeera Mubasher Misr, considered by the ruling regime and in many intellectual quarters in Egypt as a sheer propaganda channel, had been carrying the otherwise much subdued view of the Muslim Brotherhood and sympathisers.
Critics accused it of giving airtime to some of the harshest critics of the post-Morsi authorities, and over-rating the volume and influence of the Muslim Brotherhood demonstrations.
“For us that was a number one priority; we could not be having a normal relationship with Qatar when the Qataris were having a channel that was dedicated to undermining us,” the same diplomat said.
He added, “The process of normalisation has been given a serious go; first when President [Abdel-Fattah] El-Sisi received on Saturday the head of the Qatari intelligence along with his Saudi counterpart and then when Qatar got Al-Jazeera Mubasher Misr off air.”
The next step, which official sources say was already put in motion on Monday evening was an end to the media attack on Qatar. Already, the past few weeks had seen a considerable reduction of the level and volume of attacks on Qatar. This came with the end of the fall out between Egypt’s most influential Gulf allies, Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates on the one hand, and Qatar on the other during an extraordinary Gulf Cooperation Council meeting in Saudi Arabia.
“You should not be seeing a total end to the attack but it would largely go away – there could still be a sporadic show of unease here and there but for the most part you would see a shift of the media line on Qatar,” said a government official. She added that the shift would not go far enough to warmly welcome the end of the media war but “it would rather be an expression of hope that Qatar would honour its commitments to end the attack” on the regime of El-Sisi.
This scepticism is certainly genuine, according to the official sources who spoke to Ahram Online.
In the words of one, “The change of attitude on the side of Qatar is a result of pressure put by the Saudis and the Emirates and to an extent by the US with the objective of closing all files of regional disagreement to allow for everyone to focus on the war on ISIS and other [radical militant groups].”
Should all go well in the next few days, President El-Sisi and Qatari Prince Tamim could well be meeting in Saudi Arabia on the 3rd or 4th of January.
A lukewarm hand-shake rather than a genuine turn of a new page is the expected outcome of this meeting.
For Egypt to drop all hard feelings towards Qatar, Egyptian government sources say, Doha would have to give a hard time to the many members of the Muslim Brotherhood that it has been according hospitality and to close down the other recently inaugurated paper and TV channel.
This, Egyptian sources say, is not going to happen – at least not now.
Qatar, according to identical Egyptian and foreign diplomatic sources, had declined to either expel or extradite any of the Muslim Brotherhood figures it is hosting. It has, however, during the Saturday meeting between the president of Egypt and the Qatar and Saudi head of intelligence promised to ask its Islamists guests to refrain from any active political engagement.
Qatar is also promising a high-profile participation in the economic conference that Egypt is planning to have in the spring as a locomotive to attract investments.
Moreover, Qatar had promised cooperation, at the intelligence level especially, with Egypt to help contain the situation in Libya – a true headache for Egyptian authorities.
For its part, Egypt had promised to end the media fury on Qatar, to stop hampering Qatari attempts to have a bigger regional role especially in Sudan and elsewhere in Africa, and to reduce the security hassle that travellers from Cairo to Doha have been facing.
Egypt also promised to work out an end to legal and political hostility with some key Egyptian figures of the regime of ousted president Hosni Mubarak that have been offered refuge after the January Revolution.
According to the senior Egyptian diplomat, Qatar had shown a sign of good faith; it will be reciprocated “and we will take it one step at a time.”
Roots of the row
“But you have to take in mind that our problems with Qatar did not start with the ouster of Morsi,” a former foreign minister said. He added, “We have been having problems with Qatar since the mid-1990s and we have had several confrontations.”
The quarrel with Qatar started under the rule of Mubarak as Doha was trying to push hard and expand its diplomatic influence in the Middle East with an eye to be directly involved in avenues of traditional Egyptian diplomatic hegemony, including the Arab-Israeli struggle.
This was resisted by Egypt. Qatar for its part turned around and started close cooperation with some of Mubarak’s worst foes: Islamic resistance movements: Hamas in the occupied Palestinian territories and Hezbollah in Lebanon.
With the ouster of Mubarak, something that Mubarak himself and some of his closest associates and family members are said to be partially blaming Al-Jazeera for, relations between Cairo and Doha took an easier turn. It was however with the ascent of Morsi to power that these relations took a high profile with Doha stepping in as the ‘economic guarantor’ role.
Former security officers in Egypt allege that the Qatari support was not for free and insist that during the rule of Morsi Doha was privy to what should have otherwise been classified information. This is partially the charge for which Morsi is currently charged with in the ‘espionage case’.
It is not clear yet how would the developments of relations with Qatar influence the case of Morsi in this particular case – which is only part of the volume of charges that the ousted president is currently facing along with the leading figures of the Muslim Brotherhood.
All Egyptian officials who spoke to Ahram Online said that they “knew nothing” and “highly doubted” what some independent Egyptian and Western diplomatic sources suggested of a possible “way down the road” deal that could allow for some of the leading Muslim Brotherhood figures to find their way to a peaceful exile in Doha “if acquitted of the charges they are facing.”
The one political/legal deal that seems to be in the offing, according to sources, is the one related to the crew of Al Jazeera international who were arrested for on espionage charges during the coverage of news following the ouster of Morsi. Sources are not offering a date but they say that according to the legal sequence of the trial it should be soon.