Photographer: Yoan Valat/EPA

Egypt’s Stake in Case Against Qatar Is Bigger Than You May Think

Updated on
  • Almost half of names on extremists list are Egyptian citizens
  • Breakdown suggests target is President El-Sisi’s nemesis

As a critical deadline in the boycott of Qatar nears, Egypt’s stake looms larger than it may seem.

Bahrain, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates say they are targeting Qatar above all because it funds and supports terrorism. On the list of 59 individuals they have provided as evidence, 26 are Egyptian citizens.

An analysis of those named suggests the dispute is as much about Qatar’s support for the Muslim Brotherhood since the 2011 Arab Spring as it is about its backing of international terrorist organizations such as al-Qaeda that target the West. There are no Islamic State members among the names.

The Muslim Brotherhood, a diffuse and divided group that defies easy classification as a militant movement, is not labeled as a terrorist organization in the U.S. or Europe. The Egyptian government, however, has spent the past four years trying to crush it, saying it embodies the dangers of political Islam.

Prominent Preachers

Of the Egyptians named, one -- Mohammed Shawqi Islambouli, a leader of the Gamaa Islamiyya terror group -- is sanctioned by the U.S. Several others are prominent Muslim Brotherhood preachers who have supported violence, such as Al Jazeera broadcaster Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi and Wagdy Abdelhamid Ghoneim, who left Qatar for Turkey in 2014. Other names are unknown to terrorism experts, but are identified in Egyptian media as Muslim Brotherhood.

“Egypt has been dreaming for this moment, where the Saudis and everyone else is applying pressure on Qatar,” according to Mokhtar Awad, a research fellow at George Washington University’s Program on Extremism, because “Qatar has been consistently undermining the Egyptian regime.”

Qatar, one of the world’s wealthiest nations, was the main financial backer for the Muslim Brotherhood-dominated government that won election in Egypt after the former dictator President Hosni Mubarak was toppled in February 2011. When General Abdel Fattah El-Sisi seized power in a military coup two years later, he declared the Brotherhood a terrorist organization and jailed its leaders. Security forces killed more than 1,000 Brotherhood supporters and imprisoned thousands more.

Offered Sanctuary

Some who escaped the crackdown found refuge in Qatar, which also gave them a powerful media platform from which to attack El-Sisi, now Egypt’s president. One of the more concrete demands made of Qatar to end the standoff is to close Al Jazeera, the Arab world’s most watched satellite news channel. A deadline to meet those demands, which include ending alleged sponsorship of extremist groups, expires next week. 

“The ball is now in Qatar’s court,” Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry told state-run Middle East News Agency late Wednesday. It must now decide whether it will continue “in its failed efforts to destabilize the region and undermine Arab national security for the benefit of an outside power or rogue groups.”

Qatar, whose air, land and sea links with the boycotting nations were severed at the beginning of the month, says it is active in trying to shut down terrorist financing.

The Muslim Brotherhood organization renounced violence in the 1970s, but since Egypt’s July 2013 coup, disaffected former members have formed radical splinter cells that have carried out assassinations and car bomb attacks against security forces and judges in the Sinai peninsula, Cairo and other city centers.

Destabilizing Factor

“These actors are embedded in the heart of the country and they are able to destabilize,” said Awad. “They pose a more realistic threat of overthrowing the government than al-Qaeda or Islamic State ever can with their campaigns in the Sinai.”

Qatar also continues to support Hamas, the Muslim Brotherhood offshoot based in the Gaza Strip that has conducted militant campaigns against Israel.

The U.A.E. and Saudi Arabia also fear the destabilizing potential of the Muslim Brotherhood, an organization that has grassroots support and no love for the region’s monarchies. “One of Qatar’s most overt connections to Islamic extremism is its support for the Muslim Brotherhood,” says a fact sheet distributed to journalists by the Saudi embassy in Washington. “Through the Muslim Brotherhood, Qatar has attempted to undermine Jordan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain.”

Saudi Arabia and the U.A.E. have replaced Qatar as Egypt’s principal donors since the coup that dislodged the country’s Muslim Brotherhood president, Mohammad Morsi.

Holding Back?

Omar Saif Ghobash, the U.A.E.’s ambassador to the U.K., acknowledged that the evidence the U.A.E. and its allies have produced against Qatar hasn’t convinced everyone. The most alarming cases alleged are often dated, while the list includes anomalies, such as a Qatari journalist not obviously connected to terrorism.

Ghobash hinted that evidence of direct collusion between the Qatari royal family and U.S.-designated terrorists might have been held back from the list to give the regime in Doha a chance to back down gracefully first.

“Maybe this is the Gulf way of saying: Turn around now, let’s pull back now, before that kind of information is produced,” said Ghobash, interviewed at a security conference hosted by the Centre for Policy Studies in London this week.

The current list already accuses a senior member of the Qatari royal family’s council and former interior minister, Abdullah bin Khalid Al Thani, of harboring al-Qaeda’s Khalid Sheikh Mohammed in the 1990s. According to the 9/11 Commission Report, “KSM” went on to mastermind the 2011 attacks on the U.S.

Qatar claims to have cracked down on the funding and facilitation of al-Qaeda in recent years. But the reliance on the Muslim Brotherhood and Qatari-backed militia commanders in Libya for more recent evidence of Doha’s support for Islamist extremism muddies the case, according to Shadi Hamid, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institute and author of Islamic Exceptionalism: How the Struggle Over Islam is Reshaping the World.

“ISIS, for God’s sake, considers the Brotherhood apostates,” said Hamid, adding that if backing bloodthirsty militias in Libya constitutes funding terrorism, then the U.A.E. is guilty, too. Saudi Arabia, meanwhile, funds the spread of its fundamentalist Wahhabi brand of Islam around the world by building mosques and supplying imams to preach in them.

“The question,” said Hamid, “is extreme relative to what?”

— With assistance by Tarek El-Tablawy, and Nafeesa Syeed

(Updates with comment from Egyptian foreign minister in ninth paragraph.)
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