With Qatar, exercise extreme caution

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After Doha’s rapprochement with its Gulf neighbours, many people expect the next reunion will be between Qatar and Egypt. But most Egyptians are wary of any reconciliation.

Going by many of Egypt’s newspaper editorials and columnists, and its many political TV talk shows, there is much hesitancy about Egypt and Qatar mending fences, the way this tiny Gulf state did recently with three of its neighbours. And that if indeed Cairo and Doha are to bury the hatchet, the strong advice from the pundits and public alike is to exercise extreme caution.

However, at the official level, Cairo said it offered its full support to the reconciliation move among the Gulf countries.

Saudi Arabia also said it believed in a Gulf rapprochement with Qatar.

And a statement by the Gulf Cooperation Council following an emergency Riyadh summit said the meeting had reached what it described as an understanding meant to turn over a new leaf in relations.

Still, the question remains: is it a good idea?

The question gains added relevance because the next highly possible step is a reunion between Qatar and Egypt.

Egypt’s overthrow last year of Islamist president Mohamed Morsi strained ties with Qatar, which had been a key backer of Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood. Qatar gave billions of dollars in aid to Morsi’s government before it was overthrown following massive protests against his year-long rule.

His ouster led to differences among Gulf states, with the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia hailing his replacement, while Qatar repeatedly denouncing it.

Then, in an unprecedented move, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and the UAE withdrew their ambassadors from Qatar in March, accusing it of “interference” in their internal affairs and undermining their domestic security through its support of the the Muslim Brotherhood. Egypt, too, withdrew its envoy in February.

Many wonder why, despite this extraordinary isolation, and despite the fact that the MB has an ideology fundamentally at odds with the Gulf and with Egypt, Qatar continues to back the Muslim Brotherhood and host its key figures.

There are first off domestic considerations. Qatar’s commitment to the Muslim Brotherhood abroad has acted as something akin to an insurance policy against religiously inspired political opposition at home. Which is why, while Qatar gives refuge to many Brotherhood members who were pushed out of Egypt and other countries, most notably the controversial and highly influential Egyptian sheikh Youssef Al-Qaradawi, those figures have steered clear of criticising Qatar’s leadership.

Qatar’s close relationship with the Muslim Brotherhood goes back to well before the 2011 Arab uprisings. About 60 years ago the young country’s rulers turned to Abdul-Badi Saqr, an Egyptian Islamist, to help run its educational institutions. In subsequent years, Qatari officials recruited an influx of Islamist teachers from Egypt.

Qaradawi himself moved to Qatar in 1961 where he ran a religious institute before becoming a dean at Qatar University.

But over the years Qatar’s rulers kept the Muslim Brotherhood’s political influence within the country in check, while allowing the group to direct its activities to other countries in the region. Qatar saw the Brotherhood as a way to project its influence abroad, along with the billions of petro dollars it throws right and left.

So Qatar rode the wave of the Arab Spring by supporting the Brotherhood which indeed was quite popular when Arab autocrats fell one by one. Doha hoped that by backing the Brotherhood, its policy would avert a similar fate.

But Qatar bet on the wrong horse. In one fell swoop, Egypt changed not only Qatar’s political landscape but that of the region and in fact, the world. When Egypt rid itself of Brotherhood rule, Qatar found itself on the wrong side of the fence. When the MB crumbled, Qatar found itself precariously clinging on a rickety raft adrift in rough seas, a pariah state with an appropriate school of MB pariahs tagging along as company. Meanwhile, Egypt stayed afloat, buoyed by Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states which stepped in with billions of dollars in aid for Egypt, replacing Qatar’s assistance.

Should Qatar start to slowly eschew or at least partially distance itself from the MB, it would be advantageous for the region, especially amid security fears over the rise of Islamic State in Syria and Iraq. Bahrain, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and the UAE have all joined or are supporting US-led air strikes against IS in Syria. If Qatar were to join the coalition, it will certainly bolster the allied effort against this brigade of bloodthirsty terrorists.

Tensions have showed signs of easing recently after Qatar expelled seven prominent Brotherhood leaders in September.

Even the thorny issue of the imprisoned Al-Jazeera TV journalists in Cairo could be close to a settlement. A Muslim Brotherhood mouthpiece which backs Mors and the MB, the Doha-based Al-Jazeera has had three of its journalists in jail for close to a year and convicted for up to seven years by an Egyptian court for conniving with the MB. Egypt’s President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi previously refused to intervene but in July, before he became president, he said he wished the journalists had been deported and not tried, a view he reaffirmed last week. Al-Sisi’s wish may now come true. He could now utilise a decree he recently issued allowing him to repatriate foreign prisoners, raising the prospect the journalists could be deported.

Still, a 180-degree Qatari turnaround is not on the horizon. Islamists enjoying safe haven in Doha say they expect no change in the level of support from their Qatari hosts, despite the rapprochement. They also say there is no pressure to reign in their work.

Qatar has resisted joining Egypt and Saudi Arabia in labelling the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organisation, and is also unlikely to interfere in Al-Jazeera’s reporting.

It is unlikely Qatar will slip back into a follower’s role, or drop its pursuit of foreign policy independence. At most, it might ask some people to tone down their rhetoric a little.

Qatar appears ready to stand firm. It does not look like it is going to be pushed about or kowtow to those who want it to change, especially since its emir, Sheikh Tamim, 34, is fairly new on the job – he ascended the throne last year, just a week before Morsi was ousted — and wants to show that even though he’s young and inexperienced, he’s no pushover.

Indeed, Qatar recently dismissed the demands for change, describing its foreign policy as “non-negotiable”.

In any case, the rapprochement is not yet complete. The next Gulf summit is a month away, during which Qatar may want to prove its good intentions.

This is not just a question of official Qatari government policy. There are many decision-making parties in Qatar. What is agreed upon by one party can be rejected by another.

However, it is certain that things are going to change between Qatar and the Brotherhood. Doha will at least refrain from publicly supporting the group.

Less cordial ties between Qatar and the MB will almost certainly mean a more genial relationship between Qatar and Egypt. As a first step, that could be reflected in Egypt returning its ambassador back to Doha.

But given the recent strained relationship between the two, don’t expect the Egyptian public or media to receive Qatar with open arms, as if nothing ever happened. Bygones are not bygones.

Alaa Abdel-Ghani is an affiliate professor, Faculty of Journalism, American University in Cairo.