As clashes between different political groups in Egypt intensify, every nation in the region appears to be taking a stance on the violence – and Qatar is caught between camps. Michael Stephens, a researcher for the Royal United Services Institute for Defence and Security Studies in Qatar, explains Doha’s attempts to keep the peace.
Egypt’s descent into horrifying levels of violence has fractured its society and plunged the country into crisis. Although difficult to accurately verify the number of people killed in the past week, conservative estimates of the death toll range from 600 to 800, which puts Egypt on par with any of the worst weeks seen in the wars in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan.
As the crisis worsens, outside actors have begun to more strongly play their cards. In particular, the Gulf States and Turkey have waded in to offer their positions, something that European countries and the United States have been far more hesitant to do.
In the Middle East, two rival camps have emerged; the pro-military block led by Saudi Arabia, which affirms the right of the Egyptian state to use all means necessary to fight “terrorism.” Saudi is joined in this sentiment by the UAE, Kuwait and Bahrain.
The anti-military block is led by Turkey, which has recalled its ambassador from Cairo in protest and condemned the violence as a “shame for Islam and the Arab world.”
Rock and a hard place
And then there is Qatar, a supporter of the Muslim Brotherhood and its ousted President Mohammed Morsi. The Qataris are placed in a bind, as their previous support of Egypt fomented hostility with Emiratis, who viewed Qatar’s dealings with the MB as directly detrimental to their own security.
Relations between the two countries have grown problematic in recent months.
Clearly, Qatar is against the violence in Egypt this past week and the new Emir will not abandon the principles his father Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani stood for, but Sheikh Tamim has also sought to rebuild Qatar’s relations within the GCC.
Now that Saudi has become so forthright in its support for the crackdown, Qatar has to acknowledge that in order to maintain cordial relations with Riyadh, it must not take the Turkish position of outright hostility.
Turkey is a growing regional power both militarily and economically, located some 3,000km from Riyadh; so a spat with KSA can be absorbed.
Qatar might be rich, but it is small and will never be a military force in the region. Furthermore, it neighbors the Kingdom, sharing established trade and cultural links with it. Simply put, it cannot afford to take the Turkish line and upset the Saudis in the way that it has upset the Emiratis.
Yet Qatar has also sought to work closely with Turkey to seek the removal of Syrian President Bashar al Assad during a brutal civil war that has lasted two years and claimed 100,000 lives. This has been a keystone policy for the Gulf nation and cannot be so lightly abandoned.
So what is Qatar to do?
Well it has already tried to play the smart game of calling for tolerance on all sides, with Qatari Foreign Minister Dr. Khalid bin Mohammed al Attiyah urging the establishment of a dialogue between Egypt’s clashing factions to prevent “the danger of civil war.”
Qatar cannot simply abandon its MB allies and risk a rupture with Turkey. Furthermore, there is genuine dismay at the human loss of life that has occurred over the past week, and it appears that Qatar feels the Egypt crisis a genuine moral question of policy, not just a geo-strategic one of maintaining friends and alliances.
It is unlikely Egypt will return to stability any time soon, and both Turkey and Saudi Arabia might find their hard-line stances cause them headaches in the coming months when Egypt’s clashing factions either meet to compromise, or increase their hostility and start something akin to a civil war.
Should a civil war begin, both Saudi and Turkey find themselves in the unenviable position of backing the same side in the Syrian war, but backing different sides in an Egyptian conflict, a truly bizarre twist of fate if ever there was one.
Qatar would do well to not get in between the stamping feet of these two regional giants, and direct its resources to aiding the Egyptian people in their hour of need, something it has already sought to do with the provision of gas supplies earlier in August.
A policy of supporting Egypt’s long suffering population and engaging with all sides to try and find a compromise is in the best interests of Qatar, and will ultimately prevent it from being sucked into the perils of yet another regional turmoil.