By Amina Ismail
CAIRO, June 5 (Reuters) - Anxious Egyptians began flooding their community in Qatar with calls at dawn on Monday after learning that Cairo had cut ties with the wealthy Gulf state where they have made their home.
Egyptians seeking to escape economic crisis at home have poured into the Gulf and many of them in Qatar were panicked by the latest 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."
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.
Bankers in Cairo began halting 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 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 been keen that action should be 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 taken a hard line against the Muslim Brotherhood since general-turned-president Abdel Fattah al-Sisi ousted President Mohamed Mursi, the Brotherhood's candidate, in 2013.
Although it faces a 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 terrorist organisation. The group denies any connection with terrorism and says it seeks political change by peaceful means only.
(Additional reporting by Ahmed Aboulenein; writing by Giles Elgood; editing by Mark Heinrich) ((firstname.lastname@example.org; +20 2 2394 8114;))