Egypt and Qatar – the downs and ups

Dina Ezzat, Tuesday 22 Apr 2014

What would it take for Cairo and Doha to make real peace?

Tamim bin Hamad
Qatar's Crown Prince Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, May 4, 2013 (Photo: Reuters)

Caution is the defining line of official statements from Cairo on the possible rapprochement with Doha – following a serious fallout over Qatar’s support of the ousted Muslim Brotherhood – as an ‘annex’ to the wider Qatar-Arab Gulf reconciliation.

On the record, Foreign Minister Nabil Fahmy spoke of "deep wounds" and the need for "Doha's candid determination" to abandon anti-Cairo attitudes. Foreign Ministry Spokesman Badr Abdel-Ati said Cairo "will be carefully observing Qatar's attitudes on the ground" and added that Egypt remains committed to endorsing all steps allowing for a comprehensive Arab reconciliation.

Off the record, however, Egyptian diplomats are less optimistic – with some openly saying that Qatar is simply playing games to avert a planned Saudi offensive scheme with the potential to leave Doha’s membership in the powerful Gulf Cooperation Council all but fully suspended.

Moreover, the same diplomats argue that while Qatar might be acting now to appease the apprehensions of both Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, it will not "at the end of the day" do all it takes to end the reasons behind Egypt’s anger.

Cairo’s requests are direct, basic, but not few. The common denominator for the list of demands submitted to Doha's rulers through Riyadh is halting "all types and forms" of support to the Muslim Brotherhood – whether offered independently or jointly with other countries, particularly Turkey.

 What Egypt really wants

The itemised bill of this demand includes the suspension of what Egyptian officials say is a generous financial assistance offered by the Qataris to Egyptians and other citizens actively working to collect what they qualify as legal evidence for the direct implication of leading Egyptian political and executive figures -- including president-in-waiting Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi -- in “crimes against humanity that were committed upon the dispersal” of the Muslim Brotherhood-led protest camp last August.

Also on the list of demands is the comprehensive re-working of the line of coverage of Egyptian news in the Qatari satellite channel Al Jazeera and the eventual suspension of Al Jazeera Egypt, qualified in official Cairo quarters as “a launching pad of hostile propaganda against the country and its legitimate authorities in favour of the ousted, and now declared terrorist, Muslim Brotherhood organisation”.

Furthermore, Cairo wants Doha to supply intelligence information about the movement of key Brotherhood figures that left Egypt shortly before, or after, the ouster of Islamist president Mohamed Morsi on 3 July of last year. Additionally, Cairo wants some of them handed over, given that they face legal charges, and others completely silenced or asked to leave Qatar to a third destination – in Asia and Africa.

“In short, we want Qatar to fully and permanently refrain from trying to support the Muslim Brotherhood because this is what will put an end to the state of instability the country is facing; the Brotherhood have already been firmly weakened by the ongoing security attacks and the only reason they are still able to survive has to do with external support, to which Qatar is a key contributor,” said one government official.

The official added that Qatar has been “privy during Morsi's rule to classified national security information and has been using this information to harm Egyptian interests in many ways that extend even beyond direct support of the Muslim Brotherhood and their hostile choices”. This, he suggested, includes a negative influence on key national security matters, “some economic and some of an outright security nature”.

It is not uncommon at all to hear Egyptian officials, or intellectuals with direct links to leading official quarters, complain of the “unpropitious” Qatari support for Ethiopia to speed up the construction of its Renaissance Dam which is bound to seriously compromise Egypt’s water interests.

It is equally common to hear the same sources affirming in no uncertain terms the “direct” involvement of Qatar in prompting militant activities in Egypt – with some going as far as insisting that most of the attacks against army and police targets in Sinai are the doing of militants that Qatar had moved from Syria to Sinai, or has had infiltrating the Egyptian-Libya western border with arms and money.

The ups and downs of the Cairo-Doha line

The fact that Egypt has kept its ambassador to Doha home for the past few months -- as a holiday was suggested to him, without his being actually recalled for consultation or pulled back – and the fact his Qatari counterpart – said to nurture an uninterrupted positive sentiment over relations with Egypt – is still operating in Cairo, is seen by Egyptian diplomats as an indicator that Egypt never really wanted relations with Qatar to sour following Morsi's ouster “had it not been for the Qatari choices that really harmed Egyptian national security interests”.

Today, Egypt has not fully repaid the generous financial aid package that was offered by Qatar to help ease out a serious monetary, especially foreign currency, crisis that Egypt has been facing due to a substantial economic slowdown following the 25 January uprising and subsequent transitions and instability.

Egyptian officials, who often reiterate that a good part of the aid package has been repaid, agree that Doha has not pressured Egypt to return the money despite the media and diplomatic hostilities between the two countries. Some firmly insist that this is a product of Qatar's awareness of the Saudi and Emirati willingness to jump in and provide the money had it requested its reimbursement, and so Doha chose to observe silence.

In the words of the same government official, “the fact of the matter is that when Qatar made this generous package during Morsi's rule it was aiming to achieve two targets: the first was to carry favours with the regime and thus influence its political choices, which was indeed happening.”

The second objective, the same source argued, was related to “the wider Qatari scheme to secure the ascent of political Islamist groups to power in key Arab countries and to expand regional Qatari influence through these regimes”.

The argument in Cairo is that the continued Qatari support of the Muslim Brotherhood was in its early stages designed to reverse the 3 July “political changes” and reinstate the Brotherhood back in office. The argument in Qatar is that the support was extended out of the keen and genuine wish of the former Qatari Emir, who has been replaced by his son, to help Egypt – with no denial of “the obvious political interests that determine the choices of any country in the world”.

A Qatari diplomat who had spoken to Ahram Online in the early phase of the tension between the two countries said the anti-Qatari media attack was the work of Mubarak-era agents who never accepted the rise of his worst political foes to power in Egypt and who continued to employ the same “defamation lines against Qatar” that were used during his rule.

“The fact of the matter is simple: Suzanne Mubarak [Egypt’s former First Lady] and Sheikha Moza [the spouse of the former Emir of Qatar] did not like one another; they spoiled relations between the two countries at the top level and things went downwards from there,” he said.

Yesterday, today and tomorrow

Very few Egyptian officials are willing to admit that current complications in Egyptian-Qatari relations are at least partially influenced by the ‘palace intrigues’ of the past. However, even those who do insist that Qatar was attempting “all along” to use its new-found economic strength to undermine Egypt's then unchallenged heavy-weight political Arab role.

Egyptian diplomats remind how at the onset of “sensitivities” in the late 1990s, then Foreign Minister Amr Moussa would openly refer to Egypt as “a big Arab country” that is “accommodating” Qatar as “a small Arab country”.

“Qataris hated this line but, because Egypt was still politically and diplomatically influential back then, matters were contained. The dynamics changed when Egypt was significantly weakened economically and was politically isolated due to its internal issues,” commented an Egyptian diplomat.

When all is said and done, Egyptian officials say they sincerely hope the influence of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, who have also complained about Qatari support to political opposition in respective Arab Gulf countries, brings about a change of Qatari political choices – deeply and long-term.

There are two reasons why the Egyptian standpoint views this change as doubtful. The first is that Qatari choices are not haphazard or purposeless. Rather, Qatar is trying to establish itself as ‘the leading’ Middle Eastern country.

The second reason, the argument goes, is that Qatari choices are synchronised with the US's – the latter having slightly changed following a recent meeting in Saudi Arabia between Saudi monarch King Abdullah and US President Barack Obama, but are yet to be strategically altered.

Cairo is hoping that, with El-Sisi's ascent to power, Egypt may find the stability required to work its internal and regional realities, in close cooperation with both Saudi Arabia and the UAE, thus finally prompting Qatar to reconsider its choices.

For this to happen, Egyptian officials insist, Qatar would have to fully and irreversibly sever all forms of aid that could allow the Muslim Brotherhood to give El-Sisi a hard time either in or out of Egypt.

Words alone, they therefore say, will not prompt positive change in bilateral relations between the two countries; the proof of the pudding is in the tasting.

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