December 29, 2014 | Now Lebanon
“Rapprochement” Aside, Egypt and Qatar Remain Rivals
Egypt and Qatar want the world to know they’re friends again.
Over the last week, Cairo sacked a hardline anti-Islamist intelligence chief, Doha suspended its pro-Muslim Brotherhood Egyptian channel, and officials from both sides took turns singing the other's praises. Don’t be fooled, however: as long as Doha and Cairo have fundamentally-opposed regional agendas, they’ll be able to agree to little more than ad hoc concessions and empty gestures.
The long-simmering bad blood came to a boil last year with the Egyptian military’s overthrow of the elected Islamist government of Mohamed Morsi. For its part, Qatar supports the Brotherhood and other Islamists region-wide, stoking the ire not just of Cairo but also of other members of the Gulf Cooperation Council, wary as they are of extremists within their borders.
In September, amid threats of GCC sanctions, Qatar agreed to expel seven Brotherhood leaders. All subsequently passed through Turkey, and at least one has settled there permanently — Wagdy Ghoneim, an Egyptian formerly residing in California who is banned from the United States and Britain for extremist activities. Istanbul is also home to Rabaa TV, a channel beaming a steady stream of anti-government, pro-Brotherhood programming to homes across Egypt.
Today’s Turkey is fertile ground for incitement against Egypt. Ankara’s increasingly-authoritarian president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, represents the religious-conservative Justice and Development Party and, like Qatar, has thrown his weight behind Islamists from the Gaza Strip toSyria. Last week, Erdogan — who at every opportunity rails against Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi as “illegitimate,” a “tyrant” and a “butcher” — welcomed Qatar’s Emir Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani to the Turkish capital to inaugurate a bilateral “Supreme Strategic Committee.” The emir left Qatar on its National Day for this joint effort, highlighting the priority Tamim attaches to relations with Ankara.
“Turkey and Qatar have never drifted apart,” Erdogan gushed Friday. “We have always been together, we have always been in solidarity, and we have always designated standing by the oppressed people of the world as our common denominator. From now on, we will again continue our resolve in the same way.”
The following day, Qatar lavished the same flattery on its erstwhile enemy in Cairo, declaring both “Egypt's strength is strength to all the Arab nations” and its “complete support to sisterly Egypt.”
The love-in plays well for the cameras but cannot cancel out some inconvenient facts. Of the seven Brotherhood leaders said to have been deported from Qatar in September, one or more appear to have returned permanently. Between 70 and 200 Egyptian Islamists still remain in the country, and Egyptian officials do not expect Doha to extradite even those charged with violent crimes. A new Qatari-funded media outlet, Al-Araby Al-Jadeed, continues its Sisi-bashing unabated.
Moreover, the recent tit-for-tat concessions could not have been reached without the hand-holding — or even arm-twisting — of Saudi mediators. Riyadh seems to have concluded that propping up its Egyptian ally is a higher priority than continuing to isolate the irksome emirate next door.
Genuine reconciliation will require Egypt and Qatar to revise their hardline positions. Cairo will have to address some of the opposition’s legitimate grievances on human rights and political participation. For its part, Doha will have to follow through on stopping incitement against Egypt and prevail on its reckless Turkish ally to do the same. None of this is likely to happen any time soon.
Egypt and Qatar have fundamentally-opposing regional agendas. Unless and until they are motivated to build a genuinely cooperative relationship, any “rapprochement” will amount to little more than photo ops.
Oren Kessler and David Andrew Weinberg are fellows at Foundation for Defense for Democracies focusing on Egypt and the Gulf respectively.