After 400-days in jail in Egypt the Al-Jazeera journalists Mohamed Fahmy and Bahar Mohamed were released on bail. They still await a retrial regarding the charges leveled against them that they supported the now banned Muslim Brotherhood group in Egypt.
This ongoing case, which has garnered the imprisoned journalists sympathy from concerned people the world over, should be interpreted within the broader geopolitical context within which it has been taking place.
The Al-Jazeera network is based in Doha the capital of Qatar and funded by Qatar’s ruling family. Over the years it has incurred substantial consternation for its reportage. Critical reportage, for example, regarding American actions during the Iraq War, Israeli actions during military operations against Hamas in Gaza as well as actions carried out by the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad during the ongoing Syrian conflict.
Qatar has for some time been a sponsor and supporter of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood and the Hamas movement, which is an Islamist Palestinian offshoot of that Egyptian-founded organization. Circumstances in the wider Middle East region have a tendency to change quite dramatically, not to mention quite violently. Since as recently as 2012 Egypt has certainly been no exception to that rule, especially in regard to its relations with those monarchial Arab Persian Gulf states over the course of the last three-years.
2012 was the year the Muslim Brotherhood first got its hand on long sought after state power when President Mohammed Morsi was democratically-elected. Qatar supported his government and both sides sympathized strongly with Hamas during the short November 2012 clashes between that group and Israel. Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood Prime Minister even visited Gaza in the midst of that conflict as did the former Emir of Qatar who pledged to give $400 million in aid to Hamas. States like Saudi Arabia were wary of the Muslim Brotherhood and therefore irked by Qatar’s financial and political support of that group.
But only a few months would pass before all of this would change very quickly. In July 2013 the army ousted President Morsi who they claimed was usurping sweeping powers for himself. The army chief who ousted Morsi, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, was subsequently elected president in 2014 following the army’s crackdown and banning of the Muslim Brotherhood.
This was something for those Gulf states to rejoice over. Accordingly they poured money into the new regime in Cairo to keep it entrenched in power and the Brotherhood forcibly suppressed. Sisi’s Egypt has been clamping heavily down on Gaza by destroying tunnels used for smuggling commodities (and weapons) into Gaza through Egypt’s massive, sparsely populated Sinai Peninsula. The 50-day mid-2014 war between Israel and Hamas in the Gaza Strip saw Cairo adopt quite a different tone which was in no way supportive of Hamas. Later in that year the army bulldozed large parts of the Sinai-Gaza border-town of Rafah in order to create a buffer-zone along that frontier. A move which will likely serve to cripple further Hamas and Gaza’s economy.
Given the billions they gave, invested in and loaned to Egypt, whose economy has been very badly affected by the years of turmoil which ensued after the 2011 revolution there, the Gulf states have a highly vested interest in the survival of a status quo in Egypt which sees the Muslim Brotherhood suppressed indefinitely. This was one of the reasons that the support for that group which continued to emanate from Doha could not be tolerated. And measures were taken early last year when Saudi Arabia and Bahrain withdrew their diplomats from that tiny sheikdom and threatened to further sanction and isolate it, both politically and economically, if it did not alter its divergent foreign policy. The imprisonment of the Al Jazeera journalists was just another small component of this diplomatic fallout between Cairo’s Persian Gulf patrons and Qatar.
But things are gradually shifting along with the ever shifting landscape. The rift between the Gulf states and Qatar has essentially been resolved. The Hamas leaders Qatar had been hosting left the country at the end of 2014 and moved on to Turkey. It was clear that pressure from the other Gulf states was a factor in this, there was after all no way a complete restoration of ties and concordance with its neighbours could be complete if Qatar was hosting prominent leadership figures of an offshoot of a group they have declared terrorists. These moves on the part of Qatar are paying off, as its Gulf patrons are normalizing ties with Qatar so too is Egypt in a move the Saudis have dubbed “a new page” in their relationship.
Also indicative of Qatar’s willingness to pursue cordial relations with Egypt and its Gulf patrons was that sheikdom’s taking off of the air of a media affiliate of the Al Jazeera network, Egypt Direct, which was critical of the Egyptian authorities.
These series of tumultuous events may not have altered Qatar’s view of the world. But it has shown it how severe the consequences of having an independent foreign policy which is directly divergent to its neighbours can be. Its recent rapprochement with them could potentially see to those being acquitted.
Photo by Edith Soto, licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic license