Asmara and Doha at loggerheads

Radio Erena: 02 December 2019

Once more and in less than a year, Asmara has succeeded in putting Doha on the defensive. With a fiery ten-point press release issued by the Eritrean Ministry of Information- not the Ministry of Foreign Affairs-, Eritrea accused Qatar of launching systematic subversive activities against its security. Unlike the routine three-paragraphed press releases, this one came in lengthy details and as usual, it bore the features of the knotty language of Yemane Gebremskel, the Minister of Information.

Asmara´s accusations are grave. The release reflects a state of belligerence on the part of Eritrea. In it, Eritrea listed among other “subversive” activities: supporting extremist Muslim groups to engage in provoking demonstrations; sow the seeds of discord among Eritrean Muslims and their compatriots; inciting tribal and ethnic cleavages. These accusations amount to a state of outright war.

In a reaction, the Qatari Foreign Ministry said the Eritrean press release hides the real intentions of its issuers and further asked Eritrea to use the diplomatic and legal channels to address the real problems rather than throwing baseless accusation.

This is the third and the strongest press release Asmara has issued so far against Doha. The first was in March 20, 2019, in that press release Eritrea accused Al-Jazeera Channel of “spewing false and vicious news about Eritrea”, the press release referred to a certain program which said Eritrea signed a thirty-year lease agreement with the United Arab Emirates permitting the establishment of a military base in Assab, in which, the same program went on to say, that UAE used as a prison for some Yemeni dissenters. Though Eritrea was mad on Al-Jazeera’s report; but such news was confirmed by a third party and was considered as an open secret in Eritrea.

In the second press release, Asmara charged against Turkey, Sudan and Qatar simultaneously accusing them of “sporadic acts of subversion conducted by the Turkish which are perpetrated through the funding and operational sources of Qatar to undermine the peace process between Eritrea and Ethiopia.” The release cited Sudan of Omar Basheer as a springboard for such activities; the advantage which Qatar has lost with the change of regime in Khartoum, as the recent press release confirmed.

These press releases muddled the waters of the good relations between Asmara and Doha lasting for more than a decade. In the 1990s, Qatar maintained good relations with Khartoum and planned to use both Asmara and Khartoum as a springboard for its diplomatic expansion in Africa but was faced with the obstacle of the broken diplomatic relations between the two capitals since 1994.

The then Emir of Qatar Sheikh Hamad Bin Khalifa genuinely mediated between Asmara and Khartoum and has succeeded in restoring the bilateral relations in 1997. With this groundbreaking success, Qatar started to play an increasing role in the region, it distributed its favors between Asmara and Khartoum as its relation stalled with Addis Ababa. For Sudan, it sponsored the Doha agreement between the Khartoum government and Darfur armed rebel movements. In East Sudan, it also sponsored the Asmara-engineered “East Agreement” between Khartoum government and Eastern rebel groups. The Qatari reward was 600 million dollars in aid for the development of East Sudan and Western Eritrea.

These were the golden days of the Eritrean Qatari relations. The Arab spring dealt a blow to these relations as Asmara and Doha confronted each other in Libya. For long-time Qadhafi has been the staunch supporter of Asmara, he provided oil, hard currency and unlimited diplomatic backing for Asmara during and before its war with Ethiopia (1998-2000). The Libyan support was vital in saving the Eritrean economy from total collapse. When the Libyans revolted against Qadhafi, Qatar supported the revolt, whereas Eritrea hid the developments of the Libyans’ revolt form its people. Eritreans only knew that Qadhafi was killed from Jazeera channel; and nothing of what was going on in Libya was in the Eritrean local media.

The second blow came with the army taking control in Cairo. President Isaias Afwerki sizzled in joy when Al- Sissy staged his coup d’état; Isaias was not in good terms with the former president Morsi, who received Eritrean Muslim Brothers leaders in the Presidential Palace, a matter which was not forgiven by the vindictive Eritrean president.

The third blow was not final but was all the same heavy. In June 2013, Sheikh Hamad abdicated for his son the Crown Prince Sheikh Tamim. The son and president Isaias were not on the same wavelength, in addition, the regional upheavals widened the gap between them. The war in Yemen and the Embargo on Qatar exposed President Isaias’s ingratitude. He shifted his loyalties 180 degrees, embracing Riyadh and Abu Dhabi and turning his back on Doha which sponsored the peace agreement between Asmara and Djibouti. In an angry reaction, Qatar stopped its mediation between Eritrea and Djibouti, suspended Qatar Airways flights to Asmara and finally pulled its troops from the contested areas between the two countries.

The objective of the recent intensely worded press release is not Doha alone; but also the Eritrea people.

Using these ten points in the press release as incriminating evidence, the youth who are active against the regime; the old sheikhs who go for Friday prayers; and even the dissatisfied priests will be rounded up, taken away and forced to disappear because they are: “ subversion agents paid by foreign elements.”

The Eritrean government will use this press a “carte blanch” to go after the opposition leaders inside the country and abroad.

By Fathi Osman