Wednesday, June 15, 2011

EGYPT: Wikileaks documents allege deep regional enmities and a surprising alliance

by Abdel-Rahman Hussein - Al-Masry Al-Youm

It is no secret that relations between Egypt and Qatar soured considerably over the past few years. However, a recently released Wikileaks document suggests that relations between the two nations had deteriorated to the extent that the previous Egyptian regime was seeking to thwart Qatari all initiatives in the region.

The leaked cable covers a meeting in January 2010 between Deputy Chief of Mission at the Egyptian Embassy in Doha Adham Naguib, and US Embassy counterpart Mirembe L Nantongo, in which Naguib recounts then Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit’s anger at Qatar.

Naguib recounted a meeting with Aboul Gheit the week before in which he suggested that relations with Qatar needed to improve. The reaction was that Aboul Gheit almost took his “head off” and then proceed to describe the Qataris in less than friendly terms, shouting at, “their mothers and their fathers, and their mothers' mothers and fathers' fathers.”

According to the cable, Aboul Gheit felt it was a matter of honor not to improve relations with Qatar and that in fact, Egypt would “thwart every single Qatari initiative that Doha tries to put forward (during its current term) as president of the Arab League,” boasting that that had already been done.

Additionally, Aboul Gheit contended that former President Hosni Mubarak was himself adamant that Egypt should thwart all Qatari initiatives, even if they were in Egypt’s own interests.

The relationship between the two nations at the time was at a visibly low, for a number of reasons. Egypt’s historic mediation role in the region wasn’t proving to be as effective as in the past, and Qatar was attempting to kickstart reconciliation attempts between Palestinian factions Hamas and Fatah, as well as between the government and rebel groups in Darfur.

Aboul Gheit and his boss viewed Qatar as an upstart nation trying to usurp Egypt’s traditional role in the region as the arbiter of disputes, according to the cable.

Additionally, the Egyptian regime had taken great offence at the reporting of the Qatar-based news channel Al-Jazeera, viewing their reporting on Egypt as biased and a thinly veiled and consistent barrage of attacks. This was to later come to head again during the 25 January uprising when the regime accused Al-Jazeera of attempting to enflame tensions further.

“I can believe that Aboul Gheit wanted to resist anything that wasn’t proposed by Egypt. His reign as foreign minister was one of failure, and so he wanted no one else to succeed,” said the head of the Gulf Strategic Studies Center, Omar Hassan.

“Egyptian diplomacy was more effective under his predecessors, Ahmed Maher and Amr Moussa,” he added, “Aboul Gheit’s tenure was marked by failure and a deterioration in Egyptian influence in the region.”

Other cables involving Qatar dispatched from Tel Aviv in March 2009 in a meeting between US Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Jeffrey Feltman (he was the acting assistant then, officially assuming his role six months later) and Israeli Foreign Affairs Deputy Director General for Middle East and Peace Process Division Yacov Hadas-Handelsman and other Israeli officials.

The cables contained details of the Israeli relationship with many Arab countries, and at one point Hadas told Feltman that Qatari-Israeli relations were affected by the Qatari belief that Israel has secret and powerful ties with Saudi Arabia. Hadas admitted that communication between the two countries were through other channels.

Saudi Arabia has always been cautious not to have any direct communication or ties with Israel because of its position in the Islamic world. In 2002, Saudi Arabia proffered an initiative that it would normalize relations with Israel in exchange for Israeli withdrawal to the 1967 borders and an end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The initiative was reaffirmed in 2007, but no headway has been made in that regard.

And because the initiative had never been overtly welcomed by Israel, Hassan discounted the notion that Saudi Arabia would open direct channels of communication with Israel, even if they were kept secret.

“Of course, indirect forms of communication through third parties happen all the time in diplomacy,” he added, “so it can happen through Egypt, Jordan or the US.”