Tuesday,17 July, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1232, (5 - 11 February 2015)
Tuesday,17 July, 2018
Issue 1232, (5 - 11 February 2015)

Ahram Weekly

Moving backwards

Relations between Doha and Cairo plunge to a new low, writes Khaled Dawoud

Al-Ahram Weekly

Hopes that Egypt and Qatar could move beyond the tensions that have characterized their relationship since the removal of Mohamed Morsi faded this week as Cairo accused the oil-rich Gulf state of supporting not only the Muslim Brotherhood but terrorist attacks against the army in Sinai.

Speculation the already thorny relations between Egypt and Qatar were on a downward slope began hours after the death of Saudi King Abdullah two weeks ago. Abdullah had personally sponsored a reconciliation initiative between Egypt and Qatar two months before his death on 23 January.

Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi was in no position to ignore the Saudi initiative, given the political and financial support the kingdom offered Cairo following Morsi’s removal. With the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait, Saudi Arabia pumped over $20 billion to keep the Egyptian economy afloat.

Soon after King Abdullah announced his initiative a member of the Qatari ruling family, accompanied by Khaled Tuwaijri, the then head the Saudi royal court, visited Cairo and met with Al-Sisi. Cairo subsequently announced plans to invite Qatari ruler Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani to the economic conference it is holding in Sharm El-Sheikh in March in a bid to attract investments.

The thaw in relations appeared to accelerate when Doha closed Al-Jazeera Mubasher (Live) Egypt hours after the meeting between Al-Sisi and the senior Qatari envoy. While the mainstream Al-Jazeera Arabic, watched worldwide by Arabic speakers, is often supportive of the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist groups, Al-Jazeera Mubasher Egypt had turned into the Brotherhood’s mouthpiece. The Brotherhood also owns a number of satellite television channels based in Turkey and rumoured to be funded by Qatar.

Abdullah’s successor, Salman Abdel-Aziz, removed Tuweijri from his post leading some Western observers to predict a cooling in relations between Riyadh and Cairo. Al-Sisi did not attend Abdullah’s funeral, though the following day he arrived in Saudi Arabia to offer his condolences to the new king.

Commentators were quick to point out that, unlike Al-Sisi, Sheikh Tamim of Qatar and Turkish President Recep Tayyib Erdogan — both staunch critics of Morsi’s removal — attended the funeral.

If further evidence were needed of the downward trajectory in relations it was provided on 25 January, the fourth anniversary of the uprising that led to the removal of Hosni Mubarak. Al-Jazeera returned to attack mode, giving blanket coverage to protests during which 27 people were killed, most of them Brotherhood supporters, in clashes with riot police.

The straw that broke the camel’s back, however, came later: Al-Jazeera was the first channel to air pictures of the 29 January terrorist attacks in Sinai that claimed the lives of more than 30 army and police officers.

Airing videos of terrorist attacks and speeches by some of the world’s most wanted terrorists has been an Al-Jazeera trademark since the 11 September 2001 attacks on New York and Washington. Al-Jazeera, tellingly, was the channel Osama bin Laden favoured for the broadcast of his videotaped messages.

The Sinai attacks were carried out by Ansar Beit Al-Maqdis, which recently pledged loyalty to Islamic State (IS). That Al-Jazeera was the first channel with access to videos of the group shelling targets in Al-Arish and other towns in northern Sinai is not being viewed as a coincidence in Cairo.

“Anyone who has followed Al-Jazeera’s coverage of Egypt cannot help but question the sincerity of Qatar’s desire to improve its ties with Egypt,” said Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukri.

“Egypt has always shown good intentions towards its Arab neighbours and avoids offending anyone. We will continue working to fulfill the demands of our people, and will not be influenced by the sort of coverage Al-Jazeera provides.”

Attacks against Qatar in Egypt’s privately owned and state-run media reappeared. When the Qatari-funded, London-based satellite channel Al-Arabi Al-Jadid placed advertisements on billboards in several areas of Cairo last week to announce its launch many local TV presenters expressed their shock on air. Municipal officials quickly removed the offending billboards.

Egyptian officials have been keen to stress that Sunday’s release of Peter Greste, an Australian journalist who worked for Al-Jazeera’s English satellite channel, reflects a desire to improve ties with Australia and had nothing to do with Qatar. Greste was arrested with two colleagues in December 2013 and charged with conspiring with the Brotherhood to undermine stability in Egypt.

Greste and Mohamed Fahmy, an Egyptian-Canadian national, were sentenced to seven years in June 2014. Egyptian Baher Mohamed, the third defendant, received a ten-year sentence.

Fahmy’s lawyers told reporters on Tuesday that their client had agreed to renounce his Egyptian nationality in the hope the president would then act on his prerogative to transfer foreign nationals to their countries of origin to complete their sentences. Mohamed’s only hope of release is a retrial. The Court of Cassation had already accepted the appeal made by three defendants before Greste’s release.

The case of the three Al-Jazeera reporters provoked an international outcry against judicial processes in Egypt. While the case has often been portrayed as an attack on press freedom, Fahmy’s lawyers have repeatedly argued that the three journalists are victims of the deteriorating relationship between Egypt and Qatar. Fahmy’s family has hired its own lawyers, refusing those offered by Al-Jazeera.

Essam Al-Ameer, the head of Egypt’s state-owned television, announced this week that employees who had taken unpaid leave to work for Al-Jazeera in Qatar would be dismissed. Tamarod leader Mahmoud Badr has called for a demonstration in front of the Qatari embassy in Cairo on Friday, 6 February, to protest Doha’s “support for Muslim Brotherhood terrorism.”

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