Sunday,22 July, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1240, (2 - 8 April 2015)
Sunday,22 July, 2018
Issue 1240, (2 - 8 April 2015)

Ahram Weekly

‘Just protocol’

The presence of the Emir of Qatar at the Arab Summit in Sharm El-Sheikh raised questions over a possible thaw in Egyptian Qatari relations. Doaa El-Bey reports

Al-Ahram Weekly

“Meeting Emir Tamim Bin Hamad Al-Thani was a question of protocol. It does not indicate any positive steps towards rapprochement,” insists a diplomat speaking to Al-Ahram Weekly on condition of anonymity.

Yet Tamim’s attendance at the Arab Summit is being interpreted by some observers as an indication of a fall in tensions between Cairo and Doha.

Strained relations between Doha and Cairo did not emerge in a vacuum. It is premature to talk of rapprochement, says the diplomat, before the reasons behind the tensions are removed.

“There is no sign that Qatar is willing to take the steps necessary to resolve the impasse. Will Qatar abandon its support of the Muslim Brotherhood? Will it stop interfering in domestic Egyptian affairs? Will it stop backing the Islamist groups in Libya?” he asks.

President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi did meet Tamim ahead of the opening of the Arab Summit to discuss bilateral relations. But this, says Maasoum Marzouk, a former assistant to the foreign minister, was no more than a procedural meeting. Tamim, he points out, arrived to attend an Arab League’s meeting rather than visit Egypt.

Marzouk believes the history of cooperation between Egypt and Qatar will eventually outweigh current differences which he believes the media has blown out of all proportion.

“Yes, Al-Jazeera attacked Egypt on occasion but Egypt has the power to respond via its own media. As for allegations that Doha is supporting terrorism, one has to ask where are the investigations that prove this to be the case?” he says.

The possibility of Egyptian-Qatari rapprochement was first raised in November when the late Saudi King Abdullah called on Egypt to follow Riyadh and end its dispute with Qatar.

Abdullah’s call came after agreement was reached to end to the worst diplomatic rift to have hit the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) for years. In March last year Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the UAE withdrew their ambassadors from Doha after they accused Qatar of interfering in their domestic affairs and supporting the Muslim Brotherhood. The Saudi ambassador returned to Doha in November, a day before Abdullah launched his appeal for Egypt and Qatar to draw a line under their differences.

Cairo responded to Abdullah’s call by issuing a statement welcoming rapprochement with Qatar and GCC attempts to resolve disagreements among its members.

In December Al-Sisi met Sheikh Mohamed bin Abdel-Rahman Al-Thani as part of the Saudi-brokered reconciliation. The meeting was attended by Khalid Al-Tuwaijri, head of the Saudi court and private secretary to Abdullah.

The meeting between Al-Sisi and the Qatari envoy was the first since the Egyptian leader took office last year.

“The reconciliation remained superficial. It did not go beyond handshakes and photo-ops,” says Marzouk.

Within days intelligence officials from both countries met in Cairo to discuss a possible summit meeting between Al-Sisi and Sheikh Tamim. The meeting was expected to be held in Riyadh in early January, hosted by Abdullah.

There were other signs of possible rapprochement. During the GCC summit meeting held in Doha in December Sheikh Tamim announced that “the security of Egypt is the security of Qatar.” 

As a gesture of good will Qatar announced the suspension of the satellite channel Al-Jazeera Mubasher Misr which had been biased against the Egyptian authorities since the ouster of former president Mohamed Morsi in July 2013. The move was preceded by a toning down of language used in the channel’s coverage and then a reduction in the numbers of hours of transmission. The channel was then taken off the air altogether.

There has also been a toning down of media attacks on Qatar in Egypt.

In September Qatar deported seven Brotherhood leaders, a gesture that was seen as an attempt by Doha to mend relations with Egypt.

During Al-Sisi’s meeting with the Saudi and Qatari envoys the latter promised to ask Qatar’s “Islamist guests” from cease their political activities though the issue of providing a safe haven for Muslim Brotherhood leaders and supporting the group more generally was not discussed.

Doha has also shown willingness to halt its support for Libyan militias to help Cairo contain a situation that poses a serious threat to Egyptian security.

Differences with Qatar first emerged during the rule of Hosni Mubarak when Doha attempted to extend its diplomatic influence in the region, including in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Doha began to cooperate closely with Islamist movements like Hamas and Hezbollah.

Relations improved under Morsi, with Doha providing Muslim Brotherhood ruled Egypt with economic and financial support. They soured after Morsi was removed in what Doha insisted was a military coup. Qatar offered refuge to a number of Brotherhood leaders, providing them with a media platform, and withdrew the economic support it had offered Egypt during the one-year rule of the Brotherhood.

Though Saudi attempts to arrange a tripartite meeting with Egypt and Qatar on the periphery of this week’s summit came to nothing, Marzouk believes conditions are in place that could see a thaw in bilateral ties.

“There are the common dangers the Arab region is facing, not least the Houthi threat in Yemen. This could lead to improvements in cooperation and the exchange of official visits that will result in a watering down of tensions,” he says. And the media in both states also needs to practice self-restraint.

“Last but not least,” argues Marzouk, “Egypt needs to focus on internal matters. It is not in a position to make enemies, rather it needs to enhance its friendships across the region.”

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