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Qatar's influence in Egypt runs deeper than its pockets

Qatar's generosity towards Egypt is widely seen by non-Islamist Egyptians as the Gulf state seeking to establish a foothold in countries that have been swept by Arab Spring revolts. Youssef Hamza writes
Mohammed Morsi, the Egyptian president, right, meets the Qatari prime minister, Hamad bin Jassim Al Thani in Cairo last month. Khaled Desouki / AFP
Mohammed Morsi, the Egyptian president, right, meets the Qatari prime minister, Hamad bin Jassim Al Thani in Cairo last month. Khaled Desouki / AFP

It is difficult to separate fiction from reality when it comes to how much influence Qatar's deep pockets may carry beyond assisting Egypt's efforts to restore its diving economy. Stories that raise questions about Egypt's ability to maintain autonomy over its resources are denied as fast as they are published.

But there is little question that the two are forging a friendship that is rooted in a large part to the financial largesse of the Gulf state and the fiscal plight of the region's most populous Arab nation.

Beyond that, other factors appear to be at play. One is Doha's compelling desire - some would say obsession - to wield a regional influence disproportionate to its small size. Another is the election in Egypt of an Islamist president, Mohammed Morsi, whose victory marked a landmark in Qatar's longtime support for Islamists across the region.

Qatar was an anathema to former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak, who had made no secret of his contempt for the super-rich state and what he saw as its propaganda tool, Al Jazeera television.

But all that changed with the fall of the Mubarak regime in 2011 and the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood as Egypt's most powerful political group.

Qatar has since poured billions of dollars into Egypt, mostly as bonds to bolster the country's fast-dwindling coffers. Top Qatari officials, from the emir down to the head of his intelligence agency and the powerful prime minister, have been frequent visitors to Cairo in recent months.

On the Egyptian side, the Brotherhood, rather than the foreign ministry, controls the country's dealings with Qatar. Khairat El Shater, a wealthy businessman and arguably the Brotherhood's most powerful figure who was disqualified from running in the country's 2012 election for president, has been the regime's point man on relations with Qatar, frequently flying there on unannounced visits.

Top Qatari officials say they are helping Egypt because they do not want to see the country's economy continue to sink.

However, Qatar, with its massive surplus of petrodollars, also appears keen to invest in Egypt on preferential terms not available to others, if recent media reports are to be believed.

Mr Morsi has denied that his government was offering preferred treatment to the Qataris and insisted in a television interview aired early on Monday that his country's relations with the Gulf nation were on par with those with countries such as Saudi Arabia.

Mr El Shater has repeatedly made similar assertions, but Egypt's media reports on the "special" relationshipcontinue.

The perception that Qatar enjoys a special status in Islamist-ruled Egypt was reinforced during the Islamic summit hosted by Cairo in this month, when organisers set aside an entrance for the exclusive use of heads of delegations - the emir in the case of Qatar. The only exception to the rule was the Qatari prime minister.

The latest of the media reports on Egypt's "special" relations with Qatar was published by the independent Al Watan newspaper this week. It claimed that Egypt's information minister Salah Abdel-Maqsoud, a leading Brotherhood figure, intended to sell or lease to Qatari investors the massive state TV and radio building in central Cairo as part of a development project to turn the relatively poor area around the Nile-side structure into an upscale residential and commercial complex.

Mr Abdel-Maqsoud denied the report, although he did say in an interview with the same newspaper a few days earlier that he would like most TV and radio operations to move to "media city", a cluster of studios and sets on the outskirts of the city.

More importantly, media reports have speculated on a secret deal to lease the Suez Canal to Qatar, something that Mr Morsi and Qatari leaders have described as "laughable". In the interview on Monday, Mr Morsi insisted that the international waterway would remain in Egyptian hands, but did not deny reports that Qataris wanted to invest in the area along the banks of the canal, possibly as a giant free industrial zone.

On Wednesday, an independent Cairo daily, El-Yum El-Sabea, or the Seventh Day, said Qatar was offering the Egyptians huge sums to lease key antiquity sites and run them as investment ventures.

On the surface, the idea appeared far-fetched. But the Supreme Council for Antiquities felt compelled to issue a statement yesterday describing as "baseless" the media reports that said an unidentified "Gulf state" wanted a five-year lease on the sites.

With the lack of transparency on the part of the Morsi government and the marginalisation of the foreign ministry by his foreign relations aides, it is difficult to gauge with any accuracy how much leverage Qatar has over Egypt's Islamist leaders and its plans for Egypt.

But Qatar's generosity toward Egypt is widely seen by non-Islamist Egyptians as seeking to establish a foothold in countries that have been swept by Arab Spring revolts and instituting a new order. Qatar was closely linked with the Brotherhood in Libya, arming and bankrolling their militias during the 2011 civil war and now supporting its party and TV channel. In Syria, the Qataris are thought to be among the main benefactors of the rebels fighting the regime of Bashar Al Assad, particularly those backed by the Brotherhood.

In Egypt, Qatar may be taking advantage of the nation's worst economic crisis in decades to gain clout, but it may soon demand lucrative investment opportunities in return for the grants and loans it has given to help the Arab nation stay afloat.



Updated: February 28, 2013 04:00 AM

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