Battling the Muslim Brotherhood and jihadist forces at home while trying to drag Egypt out of its economic abyss, President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has found allies in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states – all desperate to ward off the combined threats of a nuclear Iran and Islamic State.
The terrorists of Islamic State have taken over part of western Iraq, a few hundred kilometers from the Saudi border; this is nothing short of a vital threat to the kingdom, and reinforcements have been rushed in. Yet while Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates have joined the US-led coalition against Islamic State, they have not sent troops to Iraq because they are reluctant to risk their armies, ill-equipped for guerrilla and urban warfare.
On the other hand, Tehran is still set to implement the goal Ayatollah Khomeini set when he toppled the shah in 1979: Destroy the Saudi regime, and impose Shi’ite Islam on the Gulf states. It is to achieve this aim that Iran is determined to obtain the nuclear weapons which will ensure its domination not only of the Gulf, but the entire Middle East.
In Yemen, Iran is aiding and abetting the Houthis – an extremist Shi’ite tribe – who have made major inroads in their fight against the central government; they have taken over the capital of Sanaa and the strategic port of Hodeidah on the Red Sea, and are directly threatening not only the western coast of Saudi Arabia but also the entrance to the Suez Canal – and therefore Egypt.
There is thus a community of interests linking the Gulf states and Egypt, in effect the front of pragmatic countries against the threat of Sunni and Shi’ite terror. But first, Qatar has to be brought in line.
The small emirate, though a member of the Gulf Cooperation Council, has its own agenda and actively supports a number of militant Islamist organizations fighting in Syria and Libya – as well as the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas. In this way, it is the weak link in the chain, more so since it is on friendly terms with Tehran.
Last year, matters came to a head. Qatar opposed the ouster of Egypt’s Mohamed Morsi, standing by the Muslim Brotherhood; Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and UAE all recalled their ambassadors from Doha. It was to no avail; Qatar’s links to the Brotherhood go back to the ’50s, when it welcomed members fleeing the wrath of Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser after they failed to assassinate him. The Brotherhood subsequently helped develop the country while promoting their own brand of extremist Islam. They exerted a strong influence on the Al Jazeera channel since its inception in 1996, turning it into a tool for incitement against a number of Arab states and ratcheting up attacks on Egypt after Morsi’s ouster.
Riyadh leaned heavily on Doha to make it change its ways but the small emirate stood its ground, secure in the knowledge that it had the support of European countries by virtue of its huge investments there; and that of the US, which has important military bases on its soil.
Thanks to the mediation of Kuwait’s emir, some form of compromise was reached, but its details have not been published.
The ambassadors of Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the Gulf states then went back to Doha, though not Egypt’s ambassador; a Gulf Cooperation Council summit was held in that city in December.
The final communique stated that all members, Qatar included, recognized the central role of Egypt in the Arab world and would support the road map drawn by President Sisi to promote the country’s stability and prosperity.
Qatar was said to have pledged to stop supporting the Brotherhood and Hamas, end incitement against Egypt on Al Jazeera and join the other Gulf states in aiding the Egyptian economy.
Sisi welcomed the move, but said he would wait to see results.
Thus far, Al Jazeera has indeed stopped its attacks against Egypt and has shut down its Egypt Direct channel.
However, the team which was broadcasting from Cairo – including an Australian journalist – is still in jail, having been arrested some months ago for incitement and condemned to long prison terms in spite of an international outcry. They could be freed soon if their appeal is accepted, as it is generally expected to be.
But Cairo has its own conditions for improving relations, and wants Doha to stop supporting the Brotherhood, Hamas and sundry Islamist militias active in Libya – from which they send terrorists and weapons to the Sinai Peninsula and Gaza; and distance itself from Turkey, which has been vocal in its hostility to the new regime and is an operational base for the Brotherhood and Hamas.
As a demonstration of its good intentions, Doha should help the Egyptian economy – as Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states are doing.
To that effect, Egypt is considering inviting Qatar to its economic summit, to be held in Sharm e-Sheikh in March.
As of now, Qatar appears to have stopped the incitement, and a number of prominent Brotherhood members who had found refuge there after fleeing Egypt have now left for Turkey. However, this is not the case among established hard-liners such as Egyptian theologian Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi and others; it is also unclear whether Qatar has stopped helping the militias in Libya. Furthermore, Egypt is waiting to see whether Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal, who operates from Doha, will be asked to leave.
NEVERTHELESS, THERE have been some interesting developments.
An emissary of Qatar’s emir has visited Cairo in the company of a senior Saudi official, and the head of the Qatari intelligence service has held talks with his Egyptian counterpart. Not all issues have been resolved, but there is hope it could happen at a meeting in Riyadh between Sisi and his Qatari counterpart, should behindthe- scenes negotiations come to fruition.
Saudi Arabia and Egypt are working hard to reestablish the old alliance of Arab pragmatic countries against Iran that was active at the time of Hosni Mubarak, with the open support of the US and the silent support of Israel.
Unfortunately, the Middle East has changed. Libya, Iraq and Syria are in various states of disintegration following the Arab Spring, and radical Islam is making heavy inroads – it has taken over significant parts of Iraq and Syria; and set the state for the fanatic Islamic State, threatening all the countries of the region.
Egypt had a narrow escape, getting rid of the Brotherhood just in time. It is now the mainstay of the fight against radical Islam – which has made the renewed alliance with Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states a question of life or death. Cairo is also assisting Libya’s legitimate government against the Islamist militias, and is trying to convince Algeria and Sudan – two countries threatened by the lawlessness in Libya and the gunmen of Islamic State – to do the same.
At the same time, Sisi is doggedly pursuing efforts to improve Egypt’s economic situation, key to the survival of his regime. He has taken courageous but unpopular steps such as slashing subsidies; launching an ambitious project to create a second Suez Canal and new industrial and tourist zones; making large tracts of land fit for cultivation; and building hundreds of kilometers of new roads. His country’s credit rating has improved, the budget deficit has started to decline – albeit moderately, and it is estimated GDP growth will rise from 2.1 percent in 2013 to 4.7 percent in 2016.
This is all good news, but too many people still live way below the poverty line; and slashed subsidies have led to a rise in the price of staple commodities.
Egypt desperately needs investments and technology; 1,200 leading international companies have been invited to the Sharm e-Sheikh economic summit.
Yet the West is in no hurry to help. Sisi is therefore also turning to Russia and China, and has signed a number of important economic agreements – while hoping Europe and the US will come to their senses, and get off the fence.
After all, Egypt is the only Arab country holding to a minimum of democracy and fighting radical Islam.The writer, a Fellow of The Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, is a former ambassador to Romania, Egypt and Sweden.