Egypt and Qatar on the rocky road to reconciliation
Cairo // A Saudi-sponsored bid for reconciliation between Egypt and Qatar is undoubtedly a welcome piece of news.
But given the intensity and history of animosity between the two countries, as well as the issues at stake, Riyadh may have to wait for some time before its endeavour bears fruit.
Egypt’s relations with Qatar have been on-and-off since the days of Hosni Mubarak’s rule. They hit an all-time low after the current Egyptian president, Abdel Fattah El Sisi, led the July 2013 military removal of the Doha-backed Mohammed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood.
In the one-and-a-half years since, Cairo has all but severed ties with Qatar and turned a blind eye to Egyptian media campaigns that vilified the Gulf state and its policies. Doha provided a safe haven for Muslim Brotherhood leaders who managed to escape arrest in Egypt and gave the Al Jazeera Television network a free rein in blasting Mr El Sisi’s government as repressive and undemocratic while unequivocally embracing the Morsi camp.
In recent weeks, however, things began to change.
Firstly, at the behest of Saudi Arabia, Egypt officially welcomed the recent rapprochement between Qatar and its GCC partners Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the UAE after a breakdown in relations that saw the three countries withdraw their ambassadors from Doha.
Things progressed significantly last weekend when a Qatari envoy, accompanied by a senior Saudi official, met with Mr El Sisi in Cairo.
Egyptian media are speculating that the leaders of Egypt, Qatar and Saudi Arabia will meet soon, possibly in Riyadh, to seal the Cairo-Doha reconciliation.
That may be premature.
Mr El Sisi’s government has consistently associated Qatar with the Muslim Brotherhood. The Islamist group’s supporters are the Egyptian government’s most vocal critics after hundreds were killed in clashes following the removal of Mr Morsi from power. The Brotherhood was declared a terrorist organisation soon after and thousands of members, including almost all the group’s leaders as well as Mr Morsi, have been jailed.
The government in Cairo has also linked Qatar to the militant groups waging a campaign of violence against it, attacking army and security forces across much of the country since Mr Morsi’s downfall.
Moreover, Egypt accuses Qatar of supporting the militant Islamist groups in charge of the Libyan capital Tripoli as well as a string of cities and towns in the eastern part of the country that shares a porous border with Egypt.
Doha needs to reconcile with Egypt to cement its own rapprochement with the Saudis and the Emiratis and all need to form a common front in the face of grave challenges, foremost of which is Iran and Syria.
Iran’s foreign policy successes pose a serious threat to the stability of the region, including the Arabian Peninsula and the vital shipping lanes of the Arabian Sea.
Already, Shiite-majority Iraq is Iran’s closest ally and the Iranian-backed Hizbollah is the most powerful force in Lebanon. Iran recently made a key expansion of its sphere of influence by backing Yemen’s Shiite Houthi rebels who overran the capital Sanaa in September and now control several provinces bordering or close to Saudi Arabia’s borders.
Syria is another front where those countries need to take a common stand, with Iran and Hizbollah providing crucial support to President Bashar Al Assad in the country’s civil war.
Qatar has been accused of backing hardline Islamist militants there, a charge that Doha has consistently denied. But, regardless, Qatar needs to join hands with the Saudis, the Egyptians and others in the Gulf to strengthen the moderate factions fighting Assad’s regime and push back the extremists of ISIL and Al Qaeda’s chapter there, Jabhat Al Nusra.
ISIL now controls a massive swathe of territory in Iraq and Syria and poses a threat to the security of Lebanon, Jordan and beyond.
On a bilateral level, Egypt and Qatar can benefit from a reconciliation.
Egypt’s economy remains in dire straits and any injection of cash or investment from the Qataris would be a welcome addition to the generous assistance it has already received from the Saudis, the UAE and Kuwait over the past 18 months.
With a great deal of money in its coffers, Qatar can also look to Egypt as a vast market where mega investments can be a profitable proposition. Politically, Qatar can benefit from being on the same side as the Arab world’s most populous nation and a traditional heavyweight.