Egypt and Qatar squabble anew, this time over Islamic State

After a period of warming relations, Egypt and Qatar get into a new spat over how to combat Islamic State

Egypt’s relationship with the Persian Gulf emirate of Qatar, which had seemingly warmed in recent months, has abruptly chilled again over how best to deal with the militants of the Islamic State.

Egypt this week sent warplanes to bomb Islamic State targets in Libya after an offshoot of the group released a video Sunday that purported to show the beheadings of 21 men, all but one of them Egyptian Coptic Christians.

At a subsequent meeting of the Arab League, Qatar expressed reservations over Egypt’s unilateral military response to the executions. Egypt’s envoy to the group retorted that the criticism showed Qatar “supports terrorism,” according to Egypt’s official news agency MENA.

Qatar then recalled its ambassador for consultations, its official media reported late Wednesday.

The emirate – a tiny but enormously wealthy monarchy that has been friendly toward Islamist groups – and Egypt had clashed vehemently over the 2012 ousting of Egypt’s Islamist President Mohamed Morsi. The coup, which was led by current President Abdel Fattah Sisi, was popular at home.

Qatar demanded the reinstatement of Morsi, who was Egypt’s first freely elected president, although he became roundly despised during his yearlong tenure. As the dispute escalated, Egypt withdrew its own ambassador and wealthy Gulf allies such as Saudi Arabia followed suit.

This time, though, Qatar may have Gulf neighbors in its corner. The leader of the region’s main diplomatic grouping, the Gulf Cooperation Council, said in a statement Thursday that Egypt’s accusations “ignore the sincere efforts” on Qatar’s part to combat extremism.

Qatar is part of the U.S.-led military coalition combating the Islamic State. A Qatari base, home to the forward headquarters of the U.S. Central Command, is the hub of the air war in Iraq and Syria.

The Arab League was more supportive of Cairo’s carrying out of airstrikes, which it described as self-defense. The group expressed “complete understanding” of Egypt’s position and also backed Egypt’s call for a lifting of the arms embargo on the Libyan army, which is loyal to Libya’s internationally recognized government.

A competing government, allied with some Islamist groups, also claims the mantle of leadership. That coalition, Libyan Dawn, has taken control of the capital, Tripoli, and is battling forces loyal to the government based in the eastern city of Tobruk, which Egypt and other nations back.    

The latest spat between Egypt and Qatar disrupts efforts to improve relations between the two nations, including mediation by Saudi Arabia. As a sign of warming, Qatar shut down an Egyptian affiliate of the Qatari-based broadcaster Al Jazeera, which Egypt said was essentially a propaganda arm for Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood.

Egypt in turn freed and deported an Australian correspondent for Al Jazeera English who had been jailed on terrorism-related charges, and freed two other journalists pending retrial. One of those holds a Canadian passport and is seeking to be deported as well.

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