Al-Ahram Weekly Online   16 - 22 August 2012
Issue No. 1111
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Amid the intrigue

Dina Ezzat examines the links between the visit of the emir of Qatar to Egypt this week and President Mursi's planned visit to Iran later this month

Emir of Qatar Hamad bin Khalifa's brief but intriguing visit to Cairo began on Saturday afternoon, a little before Iftar.

Long kept at arm's length by the Mubarak regime, Khalifa arrived at the presidential palace at 6.30pm. For a little over two hours Mursi, Khalifa and their staff shared Iftar before the two heads of state began a closed meeting.

What has been publicly acknowledged of the bilateral talks is less than striking: Qatar promised a less than headline making $2 billion in economic support to Egypt. Plans were mooted to activate already existing trade and investment agreements, though no details were provided, and the Qataris promised greater employment opportunities in the emirate for Egyptians, though without providing a timetable of when these jobs will be available.

Far more significant than the so far nebulous details of actual policies is the shift in relations between Cairo and Doha, which for the last five years of Mubarak's rule had been mired in antagonism.

Some diplomatic sources go so far as to suggest an alliance is in the making.

It was the regional, rather than bilateral, implications of the meeting that will have lasting significance.

The joint statement issued by President Mursi's spokesman's office underlined that a wide range of bilateral and regional issues were discussed.

Egyptian diplomatic sources say that two key regional issues topped the agenda of the Mursi-Khalifa meeting: the fate of Syria, where Qatar and Saudi Arabia are actively supporting the predominantly Sunni opposition to the rule of Bashar Al-Assad, and the balance of power between the Arabs, especially the Gulf states which have large Shia populations, and Iran, which continues to support Al-Assad and exercises major influence in Iraq.

According to one Egyptian official, speaking on condition of anonymity, the meeting has resulted in a "shift" in Mursi's position vis--vis the Syrian opposition, to which he had been hitherto reluctant to lend even moral support.

During his first foreign visit following election, Mursi made a statement in Saudi Arabia stressing Egypt's commitment to "protecting" Syria's Sunni Muslims. He has also made it clear to dignitaries visiting Cairo that Egypt was completely opposed to any plans that could eventually lead to the division of Syria.

Following the Qatari emir's visit it is no longer clear that this remains Cairo's default position, says the diplomat. Mursi may well be open to considering other scenarios to end the bloodshed in Syria.

"It was always a basic assumption that to support, directly or indirectly, any plan that might divide Syria would be against the Egypt's national security interests, but that was before the removal of Tantawi and Anan," says another Egyptian diplomat.

Mursi's decree forcing the retirement of Egypt's two senior military officers came less than 24 hours after Khalifa's visit, inevitably leading to speculation that the two events were linked.

An informed source who spoke to Al-Ahram Weekly denies the most detailed speculation yet to emerge -- that Mursi removed Tantawi and Annan because they were opposed to plans for the Egyptian army to train Qatari supported Syrian rebels to help them either overthrow Al-Assad or establish an independent Sunni state in Syria.

"This would be a huge exaggeration of the anti-Americanism of Tantawi and Anan," says Mohamed El-Sayed Idris, a senior researcher at Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies. He adds that it would be a mistake for Mursi to drift into supporting a Sunni-versus-Shia dichotomy and agree to any scenario that would divide Syria into two, possibly three, states.

Egyptian and Cairo-based foreign diplomats agree that it is premature to even discuss the division of Syria, though it is a debate that is unlikely to remain on the backburner for long.

The main task now, say Egyptian diplomats, is to persuade Iran to encourage Al-Assad to consider an exit -- "before it really is too late for him" as one diplomat put it.

Last week Arab countries ignored an Iranian call to discuss Syria.

Syria topped the agenda of the emergency summit of the Organisation of the Islamic Conference (OIC) that convened in Mecca yesterday. It will also be a key subject for debate later this month during the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) summit scheduled to convene in Tehran.

Last week in Cairo Mursi received Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's envoy who handed him an invitation from Tehran to head the Egyptian delegation due to hand over the NAM presidency from Egypt to Iran.

"Iran has been seeking to improve relations with Egypt for several years now, and grew even keener following the revolution," says an Egyptian diplomat.

He believes that Tehran may be willing to consider diplomatic proposals offering Al-Assad a safe exit -- as long as a pro-Iranian regime replaced him -- in return for upgrading relations between Tehran and Cairo.

Iran has already proposed that early presidential elections should be held to allow Al-Assad to hand over power. But early presidential elections in Syria are no longer an option for most Arab states, including Egypt. Last month the Arab foreign ministers meeting in Doha called on Al-Assad to step down.

According to sources within the presidential palace, Mursi's visit to Tehran has been penciled in but awaits confirmation.

This confirmation depends on the talks Mursi was scheduled to have with Ahmadinejad on the sidelines of the OIC summit in Saudi Arabia on Wednesday.

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