How Al Jazeera Further Damaged the Fast-deteriorating Egypt-Qatar Relationship

It suddenly seems that relations between Qatar and Saudi Arabia have gotten a new lease on life and are blooming, in contrast to its failing relations with Cairo.

A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el
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A scene from the Al Jazeera film "Soldiers," about Egypt's army.
A scene from the Al Jazeera film "Soldiers," about Egypt's army.Credit: YouTube Screenshot
A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

Al Jazeera – who else? – is behind the latest stormy chapter in Egyptian-Qatari relations. A documentary the international media network recently aired about the Egyptian Army sparked a volcanic reaction in the Egyptian press and parliament, even prompting calls to expel the Qatari ambassador to Cairo.

Entitled “Soldiers,” the movie features interviews with an American “expert” and Egyptian soldiers, whose faces are hidden, along with video clips portraying President Abdel Fattah al-Sissi. It opens with a scene of Egyptian soldiers crawling on the sand in their underwear, as an entire platoon looks on.

The soldiers go on to talk about being forced to do errands by officers, who sometimes abuse them; about the horrible food they get as opposed to the officers’ fare; and about the many formation exercises they are forced to endure. They also recount that they are forced to paint tanks and armored cars “10 times a year” so they will look good in parades.

For his part, the foreign “expert” says that after spending two-and-a-half years as an adviser in Egypt, he can attest that the country's military is very good at formations, but that does not mean it would know how to act in a war.

In short, it looks as if someone commissioned this “documentary” as part of a smear campaign against the Egyptian Army.

“It’s an attempt to incite the soldiers against their commanders," Prof. Tarek Fahmy, a political scientist, told Al-Ahram weekly in Arabic. "It is part of the psychological war against Egypt.”

Publicist Mohammed Hijazi commented, “We don’t need more proof than this that the movie is part of a cancerous campaign to disassemble the Middle East into its ethnic parts and to destroy the nation state.”

The Qatari reaction was not late in coming. The editor of the country's Al-Arab newspaper, Abdullah Al-Azba, published a disparaging editorial, stating: “The [Egyptian reactions of] shock and fear expose the fact that we face a feeble regime made of cardboard. Does a regime that maintains such a huge military force and sees itself as ‘a nail of stability’ in the Middle East fear the television network that broadcasts from a matchbox, as President [Hosni] Mubarak described Al Jazeera?”

The only one who has not commented on the film is Sissi, who is currently embroiled in a deep and threatening crisis of relations with Qatar, as well as Saudi Arabia.

Some 50,000 Egyptians work in Qatar, and their futures depend on Egyptian-Qatari relations.

As for Saudi Arabia, it stopped its subsidized oil shipments to Egypt, which has been forced for the last three months to buy oil on the open market. Meanwhile, Riyadh has been hinting that it may freeze the financial aid it has promised Egypt.

Bilateral mediation efforts launched by UAE Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Zayed in November have borne no fruit. Sissi visited Abu Dhabi early this month to push reconciliation with Saudi Arabia – and received two slaps on the cheek in return.

The first was when Saudi King Salman, also visiting Abu Dhabi, refused to meet the Egyptian president. The second came when Salman paid a royal visit to Doha, the capital of Qatar.

Thus, it suddenly seems that relations between Qatar and Saudi Arabia – which severed relations with Qatar in March 2014 over that country's support of the Muslim Brotherhood and its close ties with Iran – have gotten a new lease on life and are blooming, in contrast to the deteriorating relations with Cairo.

Al Jazeera also served in 2014 as an excuse for freezing relations between Egypt and Qatar, after the network gave sweeping support to the Muslim Brotherhood, from which Sissi had wrested power in 2013.

The crisis between Egypt and Saudi Arabia began to plummet after Egypt supported the UN Security Council resolution, proposed by Russia and regarding Syria, in October.

Prior to that, an Egyptian court had voided an agreement between the two countries that called for Cairo to transfer the islands of Tiran and Sanafir to Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia, which over the years has contributed billions of dollars to Egypt, saw this as ungratefulness and decided to teach Egypt a lesson.

About two weeks ago, there were reports that Egypt had dispatched military forces to assist the Syrian Army. Cairo has denied this, and so far no evidence has been found of the army’s presence in Syria. However, the reports did the job. Egypt, which supports Syrian President Bashar Assad – or at least sees him as part of the solution to the bloody situation there – is now seen as straying from the policies that Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states have led.

And so, if two years ago Saudi Arabia pressed Qatar to rein in Al Jazeera, claiming that by means of the network Qatar is interfering in the affairs of another Arab state, and Al Jazeera Egypt was subsequently forced to close down – not a peep is being heard now from the Saudi monarch. That is to say: If Egypt is insulted by Qatar, it would do well to reflect first on its actions and examine its true place in the Arab coalition.

Twenty years after the establishment of the media network, it is becoming clear that Al Jazeera’s teeth have not been blunted, and it still serves as an effective diplomatic weapon.

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