Qatar crisis reverberates across the Maghreb

Sunday 11/06/2017
Strong words. Libyan Army spokesman Colonel Ahmed al-Mesmari speaks during a news conference in the coastal city of Benghazi. (AFP)

Tunis- The diplomatic earthquake in the Arabian Peninsula over the Qatar issue sent political tremors across North Africa.

The interim government in east­ern Libya swiftly cut diplomatic ties with Qatar and Mauritania fol­lowed suit shortly thereafter. In other Maghreb countries, a range of reactions reflected an ideologi­cal divide, with Islamists express­ing varying degrees of concern about the growing isolation of a key source of support in the Arab world but officials essentially avoiding taking sides.

Mohammed al-Deri, foreign min­ister of the Libyan interim govern­ment, accused Doha of “harbouring terrorism” in a statement released to explain the severance of ties with Qatar.

The interim government, which is based in eastern Libya and aligned with military commander Khalifa Haftar, has frequently ac­cused Doha of backing Islamist-leaning factions, including the Muslim Brotherhood and more vio­lent radical groups.

Libyan Army spokesman Colonel Ahmed al-Mesmari later revealed documents allegedly proving Qa­tar’s meddling in the North African country. The documents suggest that Qatar has supported terrorist groups in Libya since 2012.

“Qatar’s destructive role in Libya will soon end,” Mesmari said at a news conference in Benghazi.

Mauritania, a member of the Arab Maghreb Union, a regional grouping that includes Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia and Libya, took a position clearly against Qatar. A statement from the Mauritanian Foreign Ministry accused Qatar of “promoting extremist thoughts and spreading chaos across many countries in the Arab region, re­sulting in major humanitarian tragedies.”

Mauritania has traditionally maintained close military and eco­nomic ties with Saudi Arabia, the regional powerhouse that has led the diplomatic move against Qatar.

Reactions across the Maghreb were predictably divided along ide­ological lines, with many secular­ists praising the Gulf states’ denun­ciation of Qatar and many Islamists expressing sympathy for Doha.

Many secularists pointed to the support provided by Qatar to radi­cal Islamists in the region and de­scribed the move of Arab countries as a blow to Islamist groups, nota­bly the Muslim Brotherhood.

Editor-in-Chief of the Tunisian Arabic-language daily Assahafa Al Yaoum Hechmi Nouira predicted huge fallouts on Islamists from the measures imposed on Qatar. “The Arab region is witnessing a real tsunami, which could potentially sweep Qatar’s allies throughout the Arab region,” he said.

“The game of political Islam is over,” said Nouira, expressing the view that “the world is entering a new era that promises to liberate politics from religious, ethnic and chauvinistic underpinnings.”

Tunisian left-wing MP Mongi Ra­houi said: “On several occasions, we have warned that Qatar was supporting terrorism, being a coun­try that has done everything in its power to divide the Arab nation in line with a Zionist agenda.”

Rahoui predicted that “the list of countries to sever ties with Qatar will grow even longer in the com­ing days” and accused Doha and its Islamist allies in Tunisia of “serv­ing foreign agendas.”

Despite its traditionally close ties with Qatar, the Islamist Ennahda party appeared to be cautiously reserved in its official stance, voic­ing concern and urging all sides to avoid further escalation. It called on countries of the region “to ac­tivate joint bodies” and “open diplomatic channels of communi­cation,” while encouraging the Ku­waiti mediation.

Outside Ennahda’s official bod­ies, however, Islamist figures and their allies clearly sided with Qatar. Hamadi Jebali, former secretary-general of Ennahda, described Qa­tar as “a victim of a conspiracy.”

Former Tunisian President Mon­cef Marzouki, who was often criti­cised for his close relations with Doha, spoke of a “satanic plot” against Doha and called on the Tunisian people to actively sup­port Qatar. His statements invited further attacks by critics who chas­tised him over his “vassalage” to Qatar.

The Tunisian government stayed away from taking sides, toeing an official line of neutrality.

Tunisia “is following with con­cern the situation in the Arab Gulf region,” said Minister of Foreign Affairs Khemaies Jhinaoui. “We hope that our brothers in the Arab Gulf countries reach a settlement that allows them to overcome their differences.”

Algeria took a similar stance, calling on the countries involved in the crisis to “adopt dialogue as the only way to settle differences.”

Algeria’s relations with Qatar have been rather bumpy since the “Arab spring,” with Algiers accus­ing Doha of promoting a foreign agenda of destabilisation in the Arab world and of fuelling civil war in Syria. In late 2011, Qatari Foreign Minister Hamad bin Jassim al-Tha­ni was quoted as telling Algerian Foreign Minister Mourad Medelci: “Stop defending Syria because your turn will come and maybe you will need us.”

The rift in the Gulf region has also affected Morocco, which has essen­tially refrained from taking sides. Some Gulf countries are, however, close allies of Morocco, which is a member of the Saudi-led coalition fighting in Yemen against the Iran-allied Houthi militia.

Moroccan airline Royal Air Ma­roc on June 6 cancelled flights via Doha, apologising to its customers “for these inconveniences caused by a situation outside of its control.”

The Moroccan government of Saad Eddine El Othmani is led by the Islamist Justice and Develop­ment party. In late 2016, the Gener­al Secretary of the Unified Socialist Party Nabila Mounib accused mem­bers of the PJD of receiving finan­cial support from Qatar.