President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi’s visit to Doha this week signals a new phase in Cairo’s relations with members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). The two-day visit, which started on Tuesday afternoon with a red-carpet reception, follows the Emir of Qatar Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani’s trip to Cairo in the last week of June.
The emir’s visit marked an end to political hostilities between the two countries which began following the removal of Mohamed Morsi as Egypt’s president in 2013 and reached an apogee in June 2017 when Cairo joined the UAE, Saudi Arabia, and Bahrain in imposing an embargo on Qatar. The blockade ended in January 2021.
Al-Sisi and Tamim met briefly on the sidelines of a limited Arab summit in Iraq in August last year and repeated the encounter in Glasgow in November on the sidelines of COP26. Egyptian officials say these encounters were followed by low-key diplomatic consultations intended to pave the way for a gradual resumption of relations.
While the officials argue it would be wrong to assume that Egypt and Qatar have resolved all their differences or suggest the exchange of visits marks a U-turn in bilateral relations by either country, they do underline that things have changed for both Egypt and Qatar.
Foreign diplomats in Egypt say Cairo and Doha both recognise that it is in the interests of neither to continue with their diplomatic warfare.
“It has become clear that no matter what anyone may think, the changes Egypt saw in 2013 are no longer subject to debate,” said one European diplomat. And Cairo, the same diplomat continued, is well aware of the significant role Qatar is playing in zones of direct national strategic interest to Egypt, including in Gaza and Libya.
Egyptian officials confirm that Egypt and Qatar have been coordinating on almost daily basis over developments in Gaza since Cairo managed to secure a ceasefire to Israel’s attack on the Strip in May last year. The reconstruction work that Egypt is coordinating in Gaza is partly supported by Qatari funds, and Cairo and Doha have been working closely with Israel to facilitate financial transactions with the Hamas-led government in Gaza. Egypt and Qatar are also working with Israel to suspend attacks on the West Bank, and with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to manage coordination policies with Israel to avoid any escalation of the situation.
On Libya too, say officials, there are signs of a shared political realism. Cairo has abandoned its east-versus-west approach to its neighbour, a process lent at least some impetus by incremental thaws in Cairo’s relations with Ankara — Egypt had until recently thrown all its weight behind political leaders in the east of Libya, Turkey behind authorities in the west of the country — while Qatar, in recent weeks, has hosted players from both sides of Libya’s geographic divide and seems open to coordinating a diplomatic intervention that includes international and regional players.
Developments in Libya, Gaza, Yemen, and Lebanon were all scheduled to be on the agenda of Al-Sisi’s talks in Doha, say officials. According to one, it is safe to assume Cairo and Doha are both interested in plausible political deals in all four countries that include some “elements” of political Islam to which Egypt was formerly firmly opposed. In the case of Yemen, one official stressed, Cairo has no quarrel with Islamists playing a role in ending the eight-year-long conflict that has compromised the security of Bab Al-Mandab and the Red Sea.
Economic issues are also high on the agenda of President Al-Sisi’s talks in Doha, just as they were during his talks with the crown prince of Saudi Arabia when he visited Egypt in July and with the leader of the UAE when he visited Egypt in August, ahead of a five-way meeting that was attended by the leaders of Bahrain and Jordan and the prime minister of Iraq. Possible Qatari investments in Egypt, including the acquisition of Egyptian government stakes in several leading companies, have already been discussed by officials on both sides, say Egyptian officials.
Cairo’s alliance with one camp within the GCC is a thing of the past, they add, and Egypt is as welcoming of Qatari investments as it is of Emirati, Saudi, or Kuwaiti investments. Not, they stress, that Egypt is turning its back on its allies of the past seven years. In press statements made over last week, President Al-Sisi paid tribute to the generous financial and economic support that Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Kuwait provided following the political changes Egypt underwent in the summer of 2013.
Meanwhile, Cairo is planning to organise a conference towards the end of this month that will bring together the government, private sector, and economic experts to decide on how best to manage the economic crisis that has hit the country in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic and the war in Ukraine.
The economy will also be central to the talks Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukri is scheduled to have with counterparts and other officials on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly meetings later this month.
Cairo has yet to finalise an agreement with the IMF for a loan to help support the domestic economy. Earlier expectations, propagated, in part at least, by Egyptian officials, that the loan would be around $10 billion, have proved wide of the mark. This week, three Western sources said Cairo could expect a figure of between $3-$5 billion. The rest of Egypt’s foreign currency needs, they insist, will have to come from bilateral agreements, or agreements with commercial banks. Egypt is already in negotiations with banks in Gulf countries to secure two loans, one of $3 billion, the second of $4 billion.
Shoukri’s UNGA agenda will also include promoting partnership with other countries focusing on green energy projects. According Minister of Petroleum and Energy Tarek Al-Molla, Egypt is hoping to become a hub for green energy, a subject that will be discussed in depth in November when Egypt hosts COP27 in Sharm El-Sheikh.
The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) will also be on Shoukri’s mind during his talks in New York. He is expected to tell interlocutors from across the world what he told Hanna Serwaa Thetteh, the UN secretary-general’s special envoy to the Horn of Africa, when they met in Cairo this week: Egypt, like Sudan, wants an end to Ethiopia’s unilateral acts over the past three years, during which it has executed three fillings of the GERD reservoir in the absence of an agreement with downstream countries as required by the Declaration of Principles signed by Ethiopia, Egypt, and Sudan in 2015.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 15 September, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.