The Cairo-Doha dispute goes much deeper than the anti-Egyptian media blitz being orchestrated by Qatar, writes Salah Nasrawi
The day a Cairo court ordered two Al-Jazeera journalists accused of supporting the Muslim Brotherhood to be released on bail, the Qatar-owned network aired secretly taped recordings of conversations between Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi and his aides in which he purportedly expressed contempt for Saudi Arabia and the Gulf rulers.
The message could not have been missed: Doha does not seem to be interested in patching up differences with Cairo, and Al-Jazeera will continue its hostile coverage of Egypt, one of the main issues behind soured relations between the two countries.
Furthermore, the leaks, first aired by pro-Muslim Brotherhood television, seemed designed to drive a wedge between Egypt and the Gulf countries which are the main aid providers to Egypt.
Relations between Cairo and Doha deteriorated after the 2013 ouster of former Islamist president Mohamed Morsi whose Muslim Brotherhood group was backed by Qatar.
Al-Jazeera has since been broadcasting anti-Al-Sisi propaganda, labelling his takeover a “military coup.”
But what has appeared to be a row over negative television coverage may in fact hide a deeper conflict over a host of domestic and regional issues, in particular Qatar’s support for Islamists whom Egypt considers to be a threat to its security.
Efforts to reconcile Cairo and Doha have stalled as Qatar’s sponsorship of what has been termed the “Political Islam project” has been too much for Egypt to ignore and leave the ball in Qatar’s court.
In November, Al-Sisi tactically gave the nod to an overture by the late Saudi King Abdullah to reach out to Qatar after the Gulf Cooperation Council’s (GCC) rapprochement with its troublesome member state.
Egypt has shown pragmatism by not staying aloof from its allies in the Gulf – Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates – which are also its main financial backers.
But Egypt, familiar with the region’s chessboard, has seemed to be holding back and playing a waiting game. It has shown no sign of starting to mend fences with Qatar until the Gulf emirate changes what Cairo interprets as its hostile policies.
Egypt’s dispute with Qatar goes beyond Doha’s support for the Muslim Brotherhood and the platform for anti-Al-Sisi propaganda which Al-Jazeera and other Qatar-owned media outlets have been giving to the group.
Cairo’s grievances against Doha include its role in building a broader Egyptian opposition movement to Al-Sisi and targeting its ailing economy by withdrawing loans and deposits provided to the ousted Muslim Brotherhood-led government.
The two countries have also been locked in a political standoff over a series of regional disputes in Gaza, Libya, Syria and Sudan, conflicts that Egypt considers as having a direct impact on its stability.
Egypt believes that the Palestinian Hamas movement, backed and funded by Qatar, shares a large part of the blame for militant attacks in Sinai. Cairo says that militants from Hamas-run Gaza have been helping jihadist groups in Sinai, such as Ansar Bait Al-Maqdis, which is linked to the Islamic State (IS) in Iraq and Syria.
The terror group is responsible for attacks against Egyptian security forces in the Peninsula and it may be seeking targets in Egypt’s mainland.
Another major point of contention with Qatar is Libya. Egypt feels there is a danger to its security from its western neighbour where Islamist extremists and Muslim Brotherhood-backed militias supported by Qatar are fighting a government that is recognised by Egypt and the international community.
On Sunday, a Libyan terror group affiliated to IS said it had beheaded 21 Egyptian Coptic Christians who were working in Libya. Many Egyptians were angered by Al-Jazeera for hosting Al-Sisi’s opponents who have exploited the tragedy to blame the government for the massacre and not its perpetrators.
There is also Sudan, Egypt’s southern backyard, which is ruled by Islamists who have close ties with Qatar. Though Cairo and Khartoum continue to maintain working relations, Egypt remains wary of Sudan’s close ties with the Gulf state.
In November the Khartoum government signed a military cooperation pact with Doha that Egypt fears will be used to advance the Qatari agenda.
Egypt also has stakes in Syria where Qatar has influence over some of the Islamist extremist groups which are fighting to topple the regime of President Bashar Al-Assad. Egypt fears both the rise of Islamists in Iraq and Syria and the influx of jihadists to join the insurgency in Sinai.
Another case in point is Turkey whose ties with Egypt have been strained since the ouster of Morsi. Cairo accuses Ankara of forming an alliance with Doha in a bid to destabilise Egypt through support for the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas.
All this indicates that a breakthrough in ties with Qatar will have to come on Egyptian terms. In the words of Egypt’s Foreign Minister Sameh Shukri, “what is required is for Qatar’s policies to be supportive of Egypt and its national security and to avoid anything that leads to destabilising Egypt.”
The problem is that no one can be certain that Qatar is prepared to make the required changes in its foreign policy that Egypt takes to be a source of instability.
Touted as backing the Islamists, Qatar’s current strategy poses a serious threat to Al-Sisi’s drive to stifle the Muslim Brotherhood.
In broader terms, in its high-stakes regional game Qatar is challenging Egypt, the Arab world’s most populous nation and one of the region’s powerhouses.
There is an increasing understanding in Egypt that Qatar is trying to use its huge hydrocarbon-generated wealth and international connections to undermine Egypt’s efforts to restore its role as a major regional player, weakened by the turmoil after the 25 January Revolution that toppled former president Hosni Mubarak.
But even if the mood in Cairo looks to be calm and diplomatic relations with Doha remain normal, Egypt seems to have options on the table.
Last month, Egypt returned a US$2 billion Qatari deposit to Doha after negotiations to convert the money into bonds failed. It plans to return a further $500 million, the rest of the billions extended to Egypt after Mubarak’s fall, as a sign of refusing to be intimidated by Qatari money.
Al-Sisi had refused to use his authority to pardon the Al-Jazeera journalists and gave the law due process to decide their fate, something which denied Qatar the opportunity to claim that it had exercised pressure on Egypt to secure their release.
An Egyptian court, meanwhile, is continuing the trial of the deposed former president and another 10 men on charges of espionage and leaking secret documents, including military and security files, to Qatar while in office.
Though no details about the documents have been made public by prosecutors, questions have been raised as to whether they included the recordings used by Al-Jazeera.