Cairo has been conducting an intensive round of calls with Gulf states after a diplomatic confrontation following Egyptian criticism of Qatar.
“It was a tough day; the president had to personally attend to the matter and we think that matters are contained, hopefully,” said a presidential source, who described the incident as a “misunderstanding.”
Since the ouster of Qatar-backed Mohamed Morsi from power in 2013, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have fully backed Cairo during its ongoing diplomatic confrontation with Doha.
On Thursday, however, the Gulf Cooperation Council issued a statement criticising statements made by the permanent representative of Egypt to the Arab League in which he accused Qatar of supporting terror groups in Libya.
Ambassador Tarek Adel’s statements followed accusations made at the headquarters of the Arab League by his Qatari counterpart to Egypt about having compromised the life of innocent Libyan citizens by conducting air strikes against Islamic State-allied targets in the eastern Libya city of Derna.
“Those are false accusations [made in Cairo] that overlook the sincere efforts exerted by Qatar and other GCC member states to confront terrorism at all fronts,” said GCC secretary-general Abdel-Lateif El-Zeiyani in the statement on Thursday.
The airstrikes were conducted on Monday, 24 hours after ISIS released a video apparently showing the beheading of 20 Egyptian Christians who had been kidnapped several weeks earlier while working in Libya.
The GCC however withdrew the statement from their website later on Thursday, and issued another one saying "GCC countries totally support Egypt in all the military procedures that it has been taking to fight the terrorist groups in Libya," the statement said, adding that this is a legal right for any state to safeguard its security and independence.
El-zeiyani said he was misquoted by the media on the first account.
The Arab League meeting, at the level of the permanent representatives, took place on Tuesday while Egypt was lobbying for an international military action, with its full participation under the umbrella of the UN, to strengthen the Tobruk government which is supported by Egypt as well as much of the international community against the other Libyan factions including Islamist-oriented groups.
In a prompt reaction, Doha summoned its ambassador in Egypt for consultation, in a typical diplomatic show of discontent.
The support of Saudi Arabia, the UAE and the rest of the 6-member GCC for the position of GCC member Qatar was simply “unexpected”, one diplomatic source stated in Cairo.
“We have noticed an improvement in relations between the Saudis and Qataris following the demise of King Abdullah [of Saudi Arabia earlier in the year] but we would not have expected a statement, certainly not in this language,” he said.
The high-level diplomatic calls that were conducted by Cairo throughout Friday morning have apparently contained a great deal of Gulf discontent. GCC ambassadors in Cairo and high levels officials in the respective capitals – excluding Doha , according to the sources who spoke to Ahram Online – were assured that the statement of the permanent representative of Egypt was taken out of context and that in any case the ambassador, “who made the statement without instructions from the foreign ministry”, was duly reprimanded.
Qatar had openly condemned the massacre of Egyptian citizens by ISIS in Libya.
An Egyptian foreign ministry source acknowledged that the permanent representative to Egypt was not acting upon “direct instructions”. She said however that his statements “were not exactly off the top of his head as he was simply echoing the line used by top state officials.”
Scapegoating Adel was the compromise that Cairo settled on, with the support of Abu Dhabi, to avert a Qatari request for a public apology.
Egyptian diplomats and officials are now preoccupied with turning the matter into what will later seem to be just a “summer cloud” to avoid a decrease in the level of representation of GCC member states at the international economic conference and the subsequent Arab summit expected to convene in Sharm El-Sheikh, under the presidency of President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi, in March this year.
Already Egypt is feeling uneasy about a delay in a meeting that it was promised Saudi’s new monarch would make to Egypt – even though officials in Cairo know very well that this meeting is about sharing with the Egyptian leadership the Saudi wish for Cairo to be “more accommodating of Egypt’s diverse political groups, not excluding the moderate Islamist groups.”
Egyptian officials have been trying to tone down the early signals of change of attitude in Riyadh with the advent of the rule of King Salman, whose hostility to the Muslim Brotherhood is not as sharp as that of his predecessor.
However, this week, it was being increasingly acknowledged in official quarters in Egypt that the time has come to look reality in the eye, especially as the GCC affront over the anti-Qatar statement was only one of several signs that times are changing for Egypt’s alliance with Saudi Arabia and the UAE.
Diplomatic sources say that change is more on the side of Riyadh, but it is being widely supported in the GCC given that countries like Kuwait and Oman were already very careful in supporting the political change in Egypt following the 2013 ouster of Morsi. They add that at the end of the day Abu Dhabi will not go too far in violating a collective GCC consensus.
The new GCC political mood was reflected on Wednesday in New York during an Arab group meeting that declined an Egyptian diplomatic demarche to solicit a UN-supported intervention in Libya.
New York-based sources said that Egypt was not impressed with the level of support it received from its previously keen allies Saudi Arabia and the UAE during this meeting, especially as it was already faced with no small diplomatic resistance from North African Arab states, who openly told the meeting that the time is not right for military intervention and that Libya needs diplomatic and political efforts.
The lack of support within and without the Arab group prompted the Egyptian delegation in New York to tone down its demands at a UN Security Council ministerial meeting that had originally included an appeal to the international community to end an arms embargo imposed on the Tobruk army which is ultimately led by Khalifa Haftar.
The Egyptian delegation had also to forgo its demand for a military intervention against all Islamist – ISIS and non-ISIS – groups in Libya.
Today, Egypt is soliciting support for action to deny Libyan factions access to arms and finance – something that most engaged states, Arab, Mediterranean and other, say should include all the factions and not just the Islamist ones.
And New York-based diplomatic sources say there is an agreement now between Saudi Arabia and the US that there is still room for diplomatic intervention in Libya and for the political process orchestrated by UN envoy Bernardino Leon to establish a national unity government as a beginning for political stability, which is going to take a long time anyway given the complexity of the political scene in Libya and the lack of statehood basics during the four-decade rule of Muammar Qaddafi.
Beyond the Libya and Qatar files, Egypt would have to now depend less on the previously generous and unconditional Saudi/UAE support, Egyptian officials admit. They agree that this might not just be political – both regional and domestic – but possibly also economic.
Cairo-based Western diplomats say that it might not be very long before the authorities in Egypt have to listen to the concern of the GCC leadership about the need to take concrete steps to integrate as many political factions as possible to help stabilise the situation in Egypt.
“The stability of Egypt is crucial to all of us – around the Mediterranean as for the Gulf countries who cannot afford to see Egypt face-to-face with long term instability,” said a Cairo-based European ambassador.
And according to informed Arab sources, Egypt might also have to soon contemplate a reaction to the wish of some of its key Gulf supporters for an Egyptian ‘active’ role in stabilising turmoil-wracked Yemen – something that Cairo has so far been too hesitant about given the unfortunate history of its ill-fated intervention in Yemen in the 1960s and given the many responsibilities of the armed forces at present.