On May 25 Egypt announced that President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi had received an invitation from the Emir of Qatar, Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, to visit the emirate. The invitation did not come as a surprise, as it had been in the making for weeks, but it certainly represented a milestone in the rapprochement between Egypt and Qatar, which has accelerated since the start of the year.
The invitation was delivered to Sisi by Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdul Rahman Al Thani, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs of Qatar, who visited Cairo for the first time since Egypt severed diplomatic relations with Qatar in 2017.
Prior to that, on April 13, Sisi had received a phone call from the Qatari Emir to wish him a blessed Ramadan. This too, was the first occurence of its kind since ties were cut four years ago.
Timing is important in this context, and bears several indications of the extent to which the leaderships of the two countries are keen on advancing the reconciliation process and at what pace.
Agreeing on an upcoming meeting between Sisi and Tamim in itself implies that the main outstanding issues between the two countries have arguably been reconciled, only awaiting a final approval by the two heads of state.
What such an understanding may include, and how it translates into matters on the ground, are questions that may raise some concerns in the region.
Featured at the forefront, of course, is the Muslim Brotherhood, whose exiled members and media personnel have paid a heavy price for the recent Egyptian-Turkish rapprochement. They are likewise expected to pay a price for increasingly intimate Egyptian-Qatari relations.
Egypt’s two main partners in boycotting Qatar several years ago, Saudi Arabia and the UAE, must also follow this development with interest, an interest not without a degree of concern. Turkey should also be watching closely.
Ten Years of Cold War
Egyptian-Qatari relations underwent sharp changes over the past ten years. We can distinguish three different phases, two of which were a clear reflection of the major political transformations Egypt witnessed, or more precisely, they were a reflection of the high hopes the Qatari political leadership had for some of them.
The first stage started with the Egyptian revolution in January 2011 when Qatar threw its full weight behind the Muslim Brotherhood, pouring in billions of dollars in aid, grants and investments, as well as free liquefied gas, especially after the arrival of Mohamed Morsi at the presidential palace.
The second phase was linked to the overthrow of Morsi and the Brotherhood. Qatar stuck to its support and offered a safe haven for the Brotherhood’s fleeing members and media platforms, as well as funds for the organization’s institutions established outside of Egypt to work against the post-July 3, 2013 regime and [Morsi’s successor] President Sisi.
Qatar paid a hefty price for this, as Egypt joined the three Gulf countries who imposed a boycott on the emirate. Today, a new phase is set to start, dictated by the changing global political climate, which includes the removal of Donald Trump and the arrival of a Democrat president in the White House.
Qatar Not to Interfere Again
On January 20, Egypt was the first among boycotting states to restore diplomatic relations with Qatar. This came just two weeks after the Gulf Cooperation Council’s Al-Ula summit and the final statement, signed by Egypt, that announced a reconciliation between the Saudi kingdom, UAE, Egypt and Bahrain on the one hand, and Qatar on the other. On January 20, Egypt was the first among boycotting states to restore diplomatic relations with Qatar.
This came just two weeks after the Gulf Cooperation Council’s Al-Ula summit and the final statement, signed by Egypt, that announced a reconciliation between the Saudi kingdom, UAE, Egypt and Bahrain on the one hand, and Qatar on the other.
At the time, Reuters quoted two Egyptian intelligence sources who claimed “a Qatari Foreign Ministry official promised, in a meeting with Egyptian and Emirati security officials … that Qatar would not interfere in Egypt’s internal affairs.”
They also claimed the Qatari official had promised “an amendment in the direction of the Qatari Al-Jazeera channel … towards Cairo.” However, another Qatari official talking to Reuters denied such a meeting ever took place, as the Al-Ula agreement to restore relations was established through written correspondence.
Regardless of the contradicting statements, the rapprochement process is a reality and is moving forward at an accelerating pace. It has already reached summit level, and a certain understanding on outstanding issues may be expected. The issue that seems most difficult in the negotiations between the two countries is certainly Qatar’s close, and perhaps enigmatic, relationship with the Muslim Brotherhood. What can we expect in this regard?
Qatar and the Brotherhood: a History
Qatar’s relationship with the Muslim Brotherhood dates back to the 1950s, when the rulers of the emirate brought in a number of the group’s members to work in the emerging education sector. One of them, Abd al-Badi’ Saqr, has in fact been responsible since 1954 for the establishment of the public school system in Qatar.
In the following decades, many members of the group held influential positions in the Qatari education system, and were responsible for recruiting more members for various positions. The most prominent among them to settle in Qatar was Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi, who has lived in Doha since 1961.
Understanding the relationship between Qatar and the Brotherhood requires us to note several important matters, the first of which is that the Brotherhood was never allowed to form a formal base within Qatar and was never allowed to spread their ideology within the emirate, which still adheres to the Wahhabi Salafist doctrine.
The second is that the Brotherhood was not the only group of non-Qatari Arabs in Qatar that played a significant role in their countries or origin, which helped contribute to Qatar gaining access and influence in those countries.
Another important group are the Palestinians who, after long periods of living and working in Qatar, played crucial roles in the Fatah Movement, Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and Hamas. Some of the most prominent among them are Mahmoud Abbas, one of the PLO founders and current president of the Palestinian Authority, as well as Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal.
The relationship between Qatar and such groups of Arab immigrants and refugees is one of mutual benefit. At first, Qatar was in dire need of hiring experienced people to work in education and help build a state bureaucracy, which had to be created from scratch. Some of the selection criteria is to have an Islamic background, while not relying on the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.
Qatar’s relentless pursuit to preserve its independence in the face of its larger neighbors in terms of land, population and wealth, encouraged it to build an ability to influence the course of affairs in the Arab world beyond the Gulf.
The instruments were firstly the Muslim Brotherhood, as well as other groups and individuals. The second tool, which could not achieve anything without the first, was Al Jazeera. These two were to compensate Qatar for the weakness of its small and inexperienced diplomatic corps.
Some of the selection criteria is to have an Islamic background, while not relying on the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Qatar’s relentless pursuit to preserve its independence in the face of its larger neighbors in terms of land, population and wealth, encouraged it to build an ability to influence the course of affairs in the Arab world beyond the Gulf. The instruments were firstly the Muslim Brotherhood, as well as other groups and individuals.
The second tool, which could not achieve anything without the first, was Al Jazeera. These two were to compensate Qatar for the weakness of its small and inexperienced diplomatic corps.
The Brotherhood … Abroad.
The consensus between Qatar and the Muslim Brotherhood (and others) was that Doha has offered refuge, security and job opportunities with a high income in exchange for the Brotherhood’s preaching and politics to be oriented abroad. This was in the interest of both parties. Al Jazeera enhanced its effectiveness, as it provided the Brotherhood with a platform.
However, this also caused a dent in Qatar’s relations with its neighbors, especially the UAE and Bahrain, as well as other countries in the region, particularly Egypt during the Mubarak era and, of course, after the overthrow of Morsi.
Before the Arab Spring, Qatar tried to strike a balance in its relations with its Gulf neighbors and Arab brothers. However, the regional uprisings boosted the Qatari rulers’ appetite for raising the bar on relations built over decades and acquired a level of political influence they had never dared dream of.
It threw its considerable financial weight behind this new dream, lavishing billions, whether on the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, during their short period in power, or the Tunisian Ennahda party – perhaps still doing so today. As high as the expected gains of the bet were, as dire were the consequences of the bet’s failure.
The Brotherhood’s Fate
Within the framework of its current efforts to heal the rift with its Gulf neighbors and Egypt, one commentator believes Qatar can take two paths in regards to the Brotherhood. The first is to reconfigure its relation with the Brotherhood to keep its activities within certain limits not to anger Egypt in particular, while not completely abandoning the organization and continuing to offer it a safe haven.
The second scenario is for Qatar to completely abandon the Brotherhood, which includes handing some of the leaders currently living in Qatar over to Egypt. Yet, in my opinion, Qatar is not in a position that obliges it to take that path. Not for free.
We should not forget that those who sought peace were the four countries that boycotted Qatar years ago. The reasons for them reaching out still exist, namely the change in US policy towards the region and the entry of Joe Biden into the White House. Therefore, Qatar is not required to abide by the conditions previously stipulated by the four countries. There is room for negotiation.
There may even be gains that Qatar can achieve in Egypt in particular, at a time when Egyptian-Emirati relations have cooled, following the UAE’s sudden indulgence in normalizing ties with Israel. The difference in position of the two countries emerged in the light of the Israeli aggression in Gaza this month, as Egypt was keen to show its public support for the Palestinians and intervene to work on a ceasefire without imposing conditions on the Palestinian resistance.
Perhaps the Egyptian leadership is ready to find a Gulf alternative to the UAE as a partner in the development the country so desperately needs. It should also be noted that, despite the tension in relations and diplomatic boycott, Qatar’s investments in Egypt continued. And there is a wide scope for more of such investments.
It is evident from official statements that economic cooperation is a critical item on the agenda. What may also play a role is that many of Qatar’s interests are no longer related to its relationship with the Muslim Brotherhood. Today, its investments should yield an adequate return.
Turkey has already discovered this, and perhaps the Qatari rulers now do as well. Yet, Qatar did not only offer refuge to people fleeing their home countries for reasons of investment.
Therefore, we cannot be certain to what extent Qatar is prepared to completely abandon the Brotherhood. However, as long as it is not subjected to any great pressure, it may maneuver for a very long time before taking decisive steps, including handing over Brotherhood leaders and prominent members.
Whatever the case, the accelerated rapprochement between Qatar and Egypt promises important developments in various files on the table. Both sides hope to achieve progress through this process of rapprochement, and both are keen on the element of speed. Still, there is no reason to believe the rapprochement, despite the current acceleration, will result in major dramatic changes. Arguably, the talk about mutual economic interests will be louder than the debate over outstanding political issues, in which the two parties may be satisfied with guarantees and promises that do not require immediate action.
The most important thing in regards to the bigger picture of the map of the region, is that the Egyptian-Qatari rapprochement is only one piece among dozens that make up that picture, which is still in process of formation. Yet, one thing is certain: it will be very different from the current one.