In the courtyard of a Cairo mortuary, the Arab springtime seemed very distant

Jeremy Bowen reports from Egypt.

The morning after Hosni Mubarak was forced to resign as president of Egypt in February 2011, millions of people in this fractious, overheated, argumentative nation were seized by a rare sense of unity. Everything was going to change for the better. To be alive in that dawn was blissful.
 
In Tahrir Square, some of the tens of thousands who had occupied it for 18 days set to with brushes and buckets to clean it up. A shingle beach of rocks and broken paving slabs that had been hurled at the police and at supporters of Mubarak was shovelled up and carted away. Big granite cobblestones were salvaged and returned to their original positions near the Egyptian Museum. Middleaged, middle-class men who looked as if they had never touched a brush in their lives puffed and panted importantly as they filled dustbin bags. Some western liberals fooled themselves that Egypt might transform itself into an oriental version of a European democracy. Egyptians were caught up in the euphoria, too. It was a time of schemes and dreams.
 

A shoddy business, death

 
As I stood this month in the courtyard of Cairo’s central mortuary, that Arab springtime seemed very distant. So many people have been killed here in the past weeks and so many bodies have not yet been claimed or identified that the mortuary is overflowing.
 
Four refrigerated lorries have been parked outside the morgue for the bodies that cannot be accommodated inside. The corpses are crammed into the back of the trucks. Thick clouds of flies buzz around them. Clumps of incense sticks, disinfectant and some Febrezelike sprays fight a losing battle against the stench of rotting bodies.
 
The trucks do not stay very cold, because men are constantly climbing in and out of them, gagging on the smell, unwrapping shrouds and shining torches on to the remains of the faces to try to find missing friends and relatives. Some families sit exhausted around the empty coffins they have brought, wondering if they will ever be able to find and bury their dead. The courtyard is squalid, covered in litter and reeking of death and desperation.
 
When they find the body, the nightmare does not end. Egyptian law demands that a death certificate be issued before a funeral can take place. I have heard complaints that families are being told they can get a death certificate only if they accept the cause of death mandated by the official behind the wire-mesh window at the morgue, even if it is not correct.
 
Many think there is a conspiracy to disguise the way that demonstrators have died. One man at the mortuary waved a certificate, a flimsy piece of paper torn out of a book of preprinted forms, a receipt for a life, and yelled that the cause of death was asphyxia, even though the body was burned. He claimed they were told to take what they were given or the corpse would be dumped in the desert.
 

Just like old times

 
Many Egyptians feel that the governing style of the dictator is coming back. It feels like that for a reporter on the streets. The official media are full of incitement against what they claim are the biased international media, blaming us for Egypt’s problems. It’s like old times.
 
The Cairo mortuary stands opposite the Old War Horse Memorial Hospital, a place set up in the 1930s by an English lady who was horrified to see cavalry horses being used and abused as beasts of burden. Just beyond this small memory of a very different Cairo, a group of local men was loitering, looking for suspicious visitors, especially foreigners with cameras. They had chased away some of my BBC colleagues a few days earlier. We had to film covertly, with a small camera that looked like a mobile phone. It is open season on the messenger here right now.
 

Cheers for leaders

 
Quite a lot of Egyptians are happy that the firmness of the Mubarak days seems to be coming back. They are fed up with the collapse of law and order that followed the 2011 revolution, chaotic streets and a collapsing economy. They hated having the Muslim Brotherhood telling them what to do while the country went, in their view, from bad to worse. I have lost count of the times I’ve been told it was better under Mubarak.
 
Since the armed forces overthrew President Mohammed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood in July, the revolutionaries of Tahrir Square have been quiet. They no longer appear to be an important factor. Before the end of 2011, it was clear that their energy was not being channelled into the kind of political organisation that was their only chance of rivalling the two existing power centres in Egypt – the military and the Muslim Brotherhood. Some liberals have turned into cheerleaders for the military, their attachment to Egypt’s democratic experiment overwhelmed by their relief that the Brotherhood, which they could not beat at the polls, is under attack.
 
It is clear that the military wants to decapitate the Muslim Brotherhood, to remove it as a political force from Egypt. The Brotherhood is being driven on by shock and rage that the power it worked towards since its foundation in 1928 has been taken away after only a year. It was disastrously incompetent at government but it is skilled and experienced at operating as a banned organisation. Its enemies celebrate a premature victory at their peril.
 
Jeremy Bowen is the BBC’s Middle East editor. An updated paperback edition of his book “The Arab Uprisings” is newly published by Simon & Schuster (£8.99) 
An Egyptian man walks between lines of bodies wrapped in shrouds at a makeshift morgue in Cairo. Photo: Getty

This article first appeared in the 26 August 2013 issue of the New Statesman, How the dream died

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Qatar is determined to stand up to its Gulf neighbours – but at what price?

The tensions date back to the maverick rule of Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani.

For much of the two decades plus since Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani deposed his father to become emir of Qatar, the tiny gas-rich emirate’s foreign policy has been built around two guiding principles: differentiating itself from its Gulf neighbours, particularly the regional Arab hegemon Saudi Arabia, and insulating itself from Saudi influence. Over the past two months, Hamad’s strategy has been put to the test. From a Qatari perspective it has paid off. But at what cost?

When Hamad became emir in 1995, he instantly ruffled feathers. He walked out of a meeting of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) because, he believed, Saudi Arabia had jumped the queue to take on the council’s rotating presidency. Hamad also spurned the offer of mediation from the then-President of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan al-Nahyan. This further angered his neighbours, who began making public overtures towards Khalifa, the deposed emir, who was soon in Abu Dhabi and promising a swift return to power in Doha. In 1996, Hamad accused Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the UAE of sponsoring a coup attempt against Hamad, bringing GCC relations to a then-all-time low.

Read more: How to end the stand off in the Gulf

The spat was ultimately resolved, as were a series of border and territory disputes between Qatar, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, but mistrust of Hamad - and vice versa - has lingered ever since. As crown prince, Hamad and his key ally Hamad bin Jassim al-Thani had pushed for Qatar to throw off what they saw as the yoke of Saudi dominance in the Gulf, in part by developing the country’s huge gas reserves and exporting liquefied gas on ships, rather than through pipelines that ran through neighbouring states. Doing so freed Qatar from the influence of the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries, the Saudi-dominated oil cartel which sets oil output levels and tries to set oil market prices, but does not have a say on gas production. It also helped the country avoid entering into a mooted GCC-wide gas network that would have seen its neighbours control transport links or dictate the – likely low - price for its main natural resource.

Qatar has since become the richest per-capita country in the world. Hamad invested the windfall in soft power, building the Al Jazeera media network and spending freely in developing and conflict-afflicted countries. By developing its gas resources in joint venture with Western firms including the US’s Exxon Mobil and France’s Total, it has created important relationships with senior officials in those countries. Its decision to house a major US military base – the Al Udeid facility is the largest American base in the Middle East, and is crucial to US military efforts in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan – Qatar has made itself an important partner to a major Western power. Turkey, a regional ally, has also built a military base in Qatar.

Hamad and Hamad bin Jassem also worked to place themselves as mediators in a range of conflicts in Sudan, Somalia and Yemen and beyond, and as a base for exiled dissidents. They sold Qatar as a promoter of dialogue and tolerance, although there is an open question as to whether this attitude extends to Qatar itself. The country, much like its neighbours, is still an absolute monarchy in which there is little in the way of real free speech or space for dissent. Qatar’s critics, meanwhile, argue that its claims to promote human rights and free speech really boil down to an attempt to empower the Muslim Brotherhood. Doha funded Muslim Brotherhood-linked groups during and after the Arab Spring uprisings of 2011, while Al Jazeera cheerleaded protest movements, much to the chagrin of Qatar's neighbours. They see the group as a powerful threat to their dynastic rule and argue that the Brotherhood is a “gateway drug” to jihadism. In 2013,  after Western allies became concerned that Qatar had inadvertently funded jihadist groups in Libya and Syria, Hamad was forced to step down in favour of his son Tamim. Soon, Tamim came under pressure from Qatar’s neighbours to rein in his father’s maverick policies.

Today, Qatar has a high degree of economic independence from its neighbours and powerful friends abroad. Officials in Doha reckon that this should be enough to stave off the advances of the “Quad” of countries – Bahrain, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the UAE - that have been trying to isolate the emirate since June. They have been doing this by cutting off diplomatic and trade ties, and labelling Qatar a state sponsor of terror groups. For the Quad, the aim is to end what it sees as Qatar’s disruptive presence in the region. For officials in Doha, it is an attempt to impinge on the country’s sovereignty and turn Qatar into a vassal state. So far, the strategies put in place by Hamad to insure Qatar from regional pressure have paid off. But how long can this last?

Qatar’s Western allies are also Saudi Arabia and the UAE’s. Thus far, they have been paralysed by indecision over the standoff, and after failed mediation attempts have decided to leave the task of resolving what they see as a “family affair” to the Emir of Kuwait, Sabah al-Sabah. As long as the Quad limits itself to economic and diplomatic attacks, they are unlikely to pick a side. It is by no means clear they would side with Doha in a pinch (President Trump, in defiance of the US foreign policy establishment, has made his feelings clear on the issue). Although accusations that Qatar sponsors extremists are no more true than similar charges made against Saudi Arabia or Kuwait – sympathetic local populations and lax banking regulations tend to be the major issue – few Western politicians want to be seen backing an ally, that in turn many diplomats see as backing multiple horses.

Meanwhile, although Qatar is a rich country, the standoff is hurting its economy. Reuters reports that there are concerns that the country’s massive $300bn in foreign assets might not be as liquid as many assume. This means that although it has plenty of money abroad, it could face a cash crunch if the crisis rolls on.

Qatar might not like its neighbours, but it can’t simply cut itself off from the Gulf and float on to a new location. At some point, there will need to be a resolution. But with the Quad seemingly happy with the current status quo, and Hamad’s insurance policies paying off, a solution looks some way off.