Egypt and Qatar: Burying the hatchet

Gamal Essam El-Din , Thursday 26 Aug 2021

As Egypt and Qatar restore full diplomatic relations, four years of fractured relations appear to be coming to an end. It is a triumph of pragmatism

Egypt and Qatar: Burying the hatchet
GCC leaders at the 41st summit

On 17 August, Qatar’s new ambassador, Salem bin Mubarak Al-Shafi, arrived in Cairo from Doha.

Qatar’s ambassador to Turkey since 2013, Al-Shafi is expected to present his credentials in Egypt and take up his duties within days. He will be the first Qatari ambassador in Cairo for four years.

Qatari Emir Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani issued a decree appointing Al-Shafi as an Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary to Egypt on 30 July, days after President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi appointed Amr Al-Sherbini as Egypt’s Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary to Qatar.

Al-Sherbini served as deputy assistant foreign minister for UN affairs in Cairo, and was deputy chief of mission at Egypt’s embassy in Brussels between 2015 and 2019.

An ambassador extraordinary and plenipotentiary holds expanded legal powers, including signing agreements in the name of the state he represents.

In June, in the wake of the signing of Al-Ula Declaration in Saudi Arabia on 5 January 2021, Egypt and Qatar agreed to move beyond their four-year dispute and work towards settling all outstanding issues.

Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukri met with Qatari Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs Sheikh Mohamed bin Abdul-Rahman Al-Thani in Doha in June. In an official statement both ministers expressed satisfaction with developments in Egyptian-Qatari relations following the signing of Al-Ula Declaration and agreed to fully restore diplomatic relations. President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi and the emir of Qatar have also exchanged telephone calls and invitations to visit.

Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain decided to end their four-year boycott of Qatar after signing Al-Ula agreement at the 41st summit of the Gulf Cooperation Council in January. They had severed relations with Qatar in 2017 over Doha’s continued support for the Muslim Brotherhood.

Western media reported at the time that the Qatari government had vowed not to interfere in Egypt’s internal affairs and reign in criticisms of Egypt aired by Doha-based television channel Aljazeera.

The deterioration in relations between Egypt and Qatar dates back to 2013 when Muslim Brotherhood president Mohamed Morsi was removed from office. Doha-sponsored satellite television channels, led by Aljazeera, described the overthrow of Morsi as a military coup against a democratically elected president.

Egyptian political analysts date the crisis in Egyptian-Qatari relations, which they say is primarily ideological, as beginning much earlier than Morsi’s removal.

“Bad relations between Egypt and Qatar go back to 1995, when former emir of Qatar Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa seized power from his father, Khalifa bin Hamd Al-Thani, in a palace coup,” says MP Mustafa Bakri.

“Hamad bin Khalifa — the current emir’s father — turned Qatar into a major supporter of Islamist movements. The pro-Islamist positions of Hamad bin Khalifa and the opening of the Muslim Brotherhood channel of Aljazeera in 1998 caused the crisis in relations between Cairo and Doha, and Qatar was the major supporter of the Brotherhood’s one year rule in Egypt.”

Qatar’s alliance with Turkey, another state supporter of the Muslim Brotherhood, pitted Doha against the rival anti-Islamist bloc led by Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the UAE.

The restoration of relations and the resumption of diplomatic ties with Qatar will never be complete as long as ideological differences exist, insists Bakri. Qatar, he notes. still provides refuge to hundreds of Muslim Brotherhood figures wanted by Egyptian judicial authorities, including Sheikh Youssef Al-Qaradawi.

Gamal Zahran, professor of political science at Suez Canal University and a former MP, argues that recent political developments in Tunisia show the gap between Cairo and Doha remains wide. While Egypt openly supported Tunisian President Qais Said’s decision on 25 July to suspend Tunisia’s Muslim Brotherhood-dominated parliament and sack the cabinet, Qatar called for dialogue between Said and political forces in Tunisia. Aljazeera, has been critical of Said, describing his anti-Islamist moves as a coup against democracy.

Differences between Cairo and Doha are also evident over political developments in Libya, adds Zahran. Qatar supports the Muslim Brotherhood, and the Turkish military presence in the west of Libya, while Egypt strongly opposes any future role for the Brotherhood in Libya, and any foreign intervention in Libyan affairs.

Other analysts argue that with the resumption of relations between Cairo and Doha the deep ideological divide between the two capitals has been trumped by pragmatic considerations. Al-Ahram commentator Gamal Abdel-Gawwad points out that in the wake of Mohamed Morsi’s removal from office Qatar and Turkey launched a campaign of media attacks and diplomatic pressure in an attempt to reverse the new status quo in Egypt but now, however reluctantly, and beginning to accept their campaign has failed.

“The success of President Al-Sisi’s regime in restoring both stability and Egypt’s regional influence, and in fighting terrorism, has forced Qatar and Turkey to reappraise their dealings with Egypt,” says Abdel-Gawwad.

The change of heart in Qatar was apparent in May when, during a visit to Cairo, Qatari Foreign Minister Mohamed bin Abdul-Rahman described Egypt as a leading power in the region, and the current Egyptian regime as being freely elected by the Egyptian people.

“If this pragmatism continues, we could well see Qatar handing radical Islamists to Cairo,” says Abdel-Gawwad.

Abdel-Gawwad stresses that May’s decision by Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain to restore diplomatic relations with Qatar was also driven by pragmatic considerations, not least the election of Joe Biden as US president. There is, he says, a wide belief in the Arab world that the US Democratic Party is Islamist friendly.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 26 August, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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