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On Egypt and Hamas

The agreement to form a national unity government signed by Fatah and Hamas is the result of the political and economic weakness of Hamas due to the recent changes in the Middle East

Hicham Mourad , Wednesday 30 Apr 2014
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It is without doubt the Palestinian question that has suffered most from the popular uprisings that shook — and still shake — several Arab countries, particularly the central states of the political Arab system, Egypt and Syria. Absorbed by its difficult political transition, the government of Cairo, as with Damascus, stuck in an endless civil war, is unable to provide the traditional political attention to the Palestinian cause, left almost exclusively today in the hands of the United States, whose secretary of state, John Kerry, makes several shuttles in the Middle East to advance the moribund peace negotiations without success.

Egypt and Syria traditionally played central roles in the Palestinian question, albeit in opposite directions. Cairo remains the main support and mentor of the moderate Palestinian Authority of Mahmoud Abbas, who also enjoys the support of Saudi Arabia and Western states. Syria, by contrast, alongside Iran and Qatar, supported the Islamist Hamas, the rival of the Palestinian Authority. Although the Palestinian cause is suffering, as a whole, the impact of the "Arab Spring", the Islamic Resistance Movement (Hamas) has the most to suffer from the current regional situation, having lost two main allies: the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, after the dismissal of Mohamed Morsi in July, and the regime of Damascus, which broke with Hamas, following the announcement of the latter's support for the armed opposition seeking to overthrow Bashar Al-Assad. Islamists in Gaza also lost, in turn, the support of Tehran, a staunch ally of Damascus.

Not only the Islamists of Hamas, an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood, lost the Egyptian ally, but they also are now in the crosshairs of the interim regime in Cairo, which is waging a war without mercy against the Brotherhood, accused of terrorism. Hamas in turn is accused of collusion with the Muslim Brotherhood and of providing them multifaceted assistance in their use of violence. A court decision, announced 4 March, prohibited any activity of Hamas in Egypt, ordered the closure of its offices and the seizure of its assets for its alleged role in the attack on Wadi Al-Natroun Prison and for assisting Muslim Brotherhood leaders to escape during the revolution of 25 January 2011. Following this judicial decision, Cairo would have started to investigate the case of 13,757 Palestinians, the majority of which belong to Hamas, who had obtained Egyptian nationality under the reign of Morsi, for the possible withdrawal of their recently acquired nationality. Hamas representative in Cairo, Moussa Abu Marzouk, vice-president of its politburo, would be also denied the renewal of his stay in Egypt.

Meanwhile, the army, which has conducted for several months a broad campaign in Sinai against various terrorist groups inspired by Al-Qaeda, has proceeded to close the smuggling tunnels on the border with the Gaza Strip that are used by Islamic militants. According to various estimates, some 80 percent of these tunnels were destroyed by the army, depriving Hamas authorities of $230 million in monthly revenue collected from this illicit trade.

Egypt appears to want to go further. According to Reuters, citing high Egyptian security officials in January, Cairo, which considers Hamas as a threat to its national security because of its links with the Muslim Brotherhood and jihadist groups in Sinai, intends to undermine the credibility of the movement in the Gaza Strip by supporting its opponents. According to a senior security official quoted by the news agency, Egypt cannot get rid of the terrorism of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt without ending it in the neighbouring Gaza Strip.

This growing hostility toward Hamas is not limited to the Egyptian government; public opinion has, in turn, turned largely against the Islamists in Gaza Strip, without however affecting its traditional support for the Palestinian cause. Current conditions, political and security instability and economic decline, has nevertheless relegated the Palestinian question into the background of Egyptian public and official concerns. The Brotherhood-Hamas connection eventually triggered an enmity towards the masters of the Gaza Strip. Hamas officials are now undesirable in Egypt. Since the dismissal of Morsi, none of them set foot in the country.

A major consequence of this quasi-break with Hamas is that Egypt has become disinterested in the mediation it had always conducted between the Palestinian Authority and Hamas towards an inter-Palestinian reconciliation. No doubt, the current context does not allow a resumption of dialogue with Hamas officials. Ironically, the hostility displayed by Cairo towards Hamas eventually promoted inter-Palestinian reconciliation. The agreement to form a national unity government signed by Mahmoud Abbas's Fatah with Hamas in Gaza on 23 April, is basically the result of the political and economic weakness of the latter as a result of the regional developments mentioned above.

The quasi-break between Egypt and Hamas at the political level should, however, not affect the Egyptian presence at the security level, in case of a military escalation between Hamas and Israel, or a possible aggression by the Israeli army against Palestinians in the enclave. Egypt thus intervened on 13 March, while snubbing Hamas, to conclude a ceasefire between Tel Aviv and the Islamic Jihad, a radical Palestinian Islamist group, after the launching of several rockets against the south of Israel following the killing of three activists of the group by the Israeli army. Egypt cannot in fact afford to stand idly by before a possible Palestinian-Israeli military escalation, which could have a negative impact on security in the Sinai Peninsula, already facing a serious terrorist activity.

The firing of rockets against Israel by the Islamic Jihad was indirectly a challenge from the latter to the authority of Hamas, held in check by a truce with Tel Aviv negotiated by Egypt under Morsi in November 2012. The obliged indulgence demonstrated by Hamas to the pro-Iranian Islamic Jihad, the second biggest political force in Gaza Strip, is explained by its desire to reconnect with the Islamic Republic, after losing most of its external allies.

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