CAIRO (Reuters) - Anxious Egyptians flooded their community leaders in Qatar with calls on Monday after learning that Cairo had cut ties with the wealthy Gulf state where they have made their home.
Among the many who escaped economic woes in Egypt and built better lives in the Gulf, Egyptians in Qatar were alarmed by the latest Arab diplomatic rift, in which Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates have accused Doha of backing terrorism.
“My phone has not stopped ringing since 4 a.m.,” Mohammed al-Iraqi, the head of the Egyptian community in Qatar, told Reuters by telephone from Doha.
“Egyptians are scared. They have jobs and a stable life here with their families. There is a state of panic,” he said, speaking shortly after the diplomatic break was announced in the small hours of Monday morning.
Foreign workers make up around 1.6 million of Qatar’s 2.5 million population, and according to al-Iraqi about 350,000 of them are Egyptians, making them one of the biggest foreign contingents in the Gulf country.
Egyptians in Qatar are apprehensive and say that so far the main issue is food. At least 40 percent of Qatar’s food products are imported from Saudi Arabia and photos of grocery stores in Doha shared with Reuters by residents showed empty shelves.
Private-sector workers were not worried about deportations, saying they did not think it was in the interest of their companies to take such actions. Those in the public sector were more concerned.
“We are at the mercy of the (Qatari) government. So far there are no indications that we will be kicked out, but it could happen at any moment,” said one public-sector worker who did not wish to be identified.
“And then even if we are deported, how would we leave? We are hearing all sorts of news about flight suspensions.”
Egypt has asked Greece to use its embassy in Doha to represent the interests of Egyptians in Qatar, the foreign ministry said on Monday, and Greece has agreed.
“In light of the Egyptian government’s decision to sever its diplomatic ties with Qatar, and of the close relations between Egypt and Greece, Egypt looks to the Greek embassy in Doha to look after Egypt’s interests,” the ministry said in a statement.
Aside from the fate of Egyptians in Qatar, the move could have severe economic consequences. The four countries involved have announced the closure of transport links with Qatar, a small peninsula whose only land border is with Saudi Arabia.
Egypt, the Arab world’s most populous country, said a ban on flights to and from Qatar would begin on Tuesday at 6 a.m. local time (0400 GMT).
Prime Minister Sherif Ismail said Qatari students in Egypt would not be harmed or affected by the break in relations, though it was too soon to talk about the fate of Qatari investments in Egypt, according to the Egyptian state news agency.
Ismail sought to reassure energy markets that the decision would not affect Egypt’s liquefied natural gas (LNG) imports, saying that several international companies allow it to meet its gas requirements.
“There is no relationship between the cut in ties with Qatar and the import of gas,” he said, suggesting that Egypt’s LNG imports, some of which it buys from international trading houses that source the gas from Qatar, will not be affected.
Qatar is the world’s top seller of LNG and the decision by Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and other Arab powers to break off ties stoked concern about supply disruptions to neighboring countries spilling over into global gas markets.
Bankers in Cairo began to halt dealings with Qatari banks on the instructions of their managers, although the Egyptian Central Bank said it had not ordered banks to suspend transactions in Qatari riyals.
One of Egypt’s most prominent business leaders, billionaire Naguib Sawiris, called on Egyptian businessmen to withdraw their investments from Qatar and halt dealings with the Gulf state, his spokesperson told Reuters.
At the same time, Egypt gave the Qatari ambassador in Cairo 48 hours to leave the country and recalled its senior diplomatic representative in Doha.
The move proved popular on the streets of Cairo. One resident, Mohamed Hasehm, told Reuters: “Cutting relations is a must because Qatar, Turkey and Iran support the terrorism that we face. It is a given. Relations must be ended.”
A woman who gave her name as Nermine added: “This step should have come sooner.”
Some Egyptian media poked fun at Qatar’s ruling emir, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani. Al Youm Al Sabaa, a pro-government newspaper, published a full-page comic strip entitled “The beast prince in the island of hell”.
Egypt has for years wanted action taken against the Muslim Brotherhood, whose support by Qatar was given as a reason for the diplomatic action.
“Egypt has been waiting to take this decision for a long time,” said Egyptian political analyst Ashraf al-Ashry. Cairo had been seeking backing from Gulf States for action against Qatar, Ashry said. “It wanted Arab and regional support.”
Egypt has cracked down hard on the Brotherhood since general-turned-president Abdel Fattah al-Sisi ousted President Mohamed Mursi, the Brotherhood’s candidate, in 2013.
In doing so, and despite its severe economic crisis, Egypt has been prepared to forgo the billions of dollars in economic support it used to receive from the Qataris under Mursi.
For Sisi, the diplomatic break is an opportunity to punish Qatar, something Egypt has spent years lobbying for.
The issue is important because of his pledge to keep Egypt safe from militant violence and the fact that this violence continues, with Islamic State and groups the government links to the Brotherhood continuing to stage attacks.
Egypt has declared the Brotherhood to be a banned terrorist organization. The group denies any connection with terrorism and says it seeks political change by peaceful means only.
Reporting by Amina Ismail; Additional reporting by Ahmed Aboulenein, Asma Alsharif, Arwa Gaballa, and Mostafa Hashem; Writing by Giles Elgood and Ahmed Aboulenein; Editing by Mark Heinrich, Larry King