Al-Thani (l) and Shoukri (c) (photo: AP)
Qatari Foreign Minister Mohamed bin Abdel-Rahman Al-Thani arrived in Cairo on Tuesday on his first exclusively bilateral visit following a four-year diplomatic standoff.
Al-Thani visited Cairo for the first time in March this year to participate in an Arab foreign ministers’ meeting at the headquarters of the Arab League, and during his trip he met with Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukri for talks which Egyptian diplomats described at the time as “thorough” and “candid”.
In June 2017, Egypt joined the Emiratis, Saudis, and Bahrainis in imposing a boycott on Qatar to retaliate what the four aligned capitals characterised as Doha’s destructive regional policies, its intervention in their internal affairs, and support of terrorist groups.
In January this year, during a summit of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) in the Saudi city of Al-Ula, which Shoukri attended, a process of reconciliation was launched. The consensus among Arab and Western diplomats said that the GCC reconciliation had become inevitable following the November 2020 election of Joe Biden as US president.
A few days after the GCC summit, Qatari Minister of Finance Ali bin Sherif Al-Amadi arrived in Cairo for a brief visit. He took part in the inauguration of a hotel owned by a Qatari company alongside his Egyptian counterpart Mohamed Maait and the then US treasury secretary Steven Mnuchin.
In the months that followed Shoukri made a few cautiously positive statements on Egyptian-Qatari relations. Egypt, he said, is willing to pursue closer relations with Qatar on the basis of mutual respect of national sovereignty and national interests.
Ending tit-for-tat media attacks was bilaterally agreed during the Shoukri-Thani talks in March and according to concerned Egyptian officials both Cairo and Doha have honoured the deal.
In a significant shift in the Egyptian position towards Qatari-owned and operated Al-Jazeera satellite channel, Foreign Ministry Spokesman Ahmed Hafez briefed the broadcaster on Egypt’s diplomatic and security mediation to secure a ceasefire in Gaza.
According to Egyptian government sources, Cairo and Doha coordinated with both Hamas and Israel to help secure the ceasefire. The same officials said last week’s cooperation was not the first time that the two countries had cooperated over Gaza. Even during the years of boycott Cairo worked with Doha to improve the humanitarian situation in the Strip.
Egypt is working with regional and international partners to consolidate the ceasefire and launch a reconstruction plan for the devastated Strip which has sustained enormous damage to its infrastructure during the Israeli aggressions of 2008, 2012, 2014, and this year. Qatar is a key donor to the Hamas government which has been running Gaza since 2016.
Egypt’s change in posture towards Qatar has been mirrored by Cairo’s changing attitude towards Doha’s strongest regional ally, Ankara.
Earlier this month a Turkish delegation arrived in Egypt for talks, the first significant sign of a thaw since relations soured in the summer of 2013.
Any rapprochement, however, remains cautious and conditional. As with Qatar, Egypt and Turkey agreed to end reciprocal media attacks. Egypt also demanded the suspension of attacks on its regime by Egyptian fugitives who fled to Turkey in 2013. The demands, Egyptian officials say, were promptly accommodated, leading to this month’s meeting between the deputy foreign ministers of the two countries. A ministerial meeting is being considered for the summer.
Despite the thaw in relations with both Ankara and Doha, an upgrade of diplomatic representation — downgraded, respectively, in 2013 and 2017 — is unlikely to be immediate.
In the summer Cairo will be announcing new ambassadorial postings and according to an informed Foreign Ministry source neither Qatar nor Turkey are on the list. “I am not saying it will not happen. I am saying that so far it might not happen. It all depends on political developments before the nominations are announced,” he said.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 27 May, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly