Recent weeks have witnessed a campaign against Palestinian resistance faction Hamas in several Egyptian media outlets due to the alleged involvement of the group – which has governed the Gaza Strip since mid-2007 – in the attack that killed 16 Egyptian border guards last August in the Sinai Peninsula near the border with Israel.
The findings of an investigation conducted by the army, in collaboration with police and Bedouin tribesmen, are expected in April. But already, leaks by anonymous security sources have suggested the involvement of Hamas elements, even some of the group's leaders.
This information, which remains unverifiable, has included the discovery of fabric that might have been used to make counterfeit Egyptian military uniforms in a Gaza smuggling tunnel, and the seizure of weapons and diesel fuel being smuggled through the tunnels to the Palestinian enclave.
This news was announced at a time when Egypt is suffering a severe shortage of diesel fuel, causing unrest and violence, as well as a serious security problem in the Sinai Peninsula, which is closely linked to the situation in neighbouring Gaza and the longstanding blockade imposed by Israel. Taken together, all these 'clues' have had the effect of turning segments of the Egyptian public against Hamas.
For its part, Hamas has expressed its dissatisfaction with Egypt due to the recent closure of smuggling tunnels by the Egyptian army. Since early February, the army has begun flooding tunnels with raw sewage. The number of functioning tunnels has therefore decreased from about 250 to about 100 still in operation. Recent developments have prompted leading Hamas member Mahmoud Al-Zahar to assert: "The former [Egyptian] regime was cruel, but it never allowed Gaza to starve."
The Egyptian army has recently stepped up its efforts to eradicate the smuggling tunnels because of perceived links between insecurity in Sinai, caused by the expansion of jihadist groups, and Hamas' struggle against Israel. One consequence of this was last August's attack, the deadliest for the army for decades. It is unlikely, however, that the army is really willing to put an end to the tunnels and smuggling operations. Allowing some tunnels to continue to function would prevent the suffocation of Gaza, with the predictable negative consequences on Egyptian security.
The acrimony expressed recently by Hamas leaders contrasts with the euphoria with which Hamas met the victory of Mohamed Morsi, who hails from the Muslim Brotherhood, in last June's presidential elections. Founded in 1987 in the wake of the first Palestinian Intifada, Hamas – or the Islamic Resistance Movement – was an ideological offshoot of Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood. Since then, the latter has not ceased to show its support for Hamas, which advocates armed struggle against Israel and rejects any negotiations with the Zionist entity. But things began to change with the arrival of the Muslim Brotherhood to power – to the chagrin of Palestinian Islamists.
President Morsi has been faced with the constraints he inherited from the days of Sadat and Mubarak, mainly related to Egypt's 1979 peace treaty with Israel and its subsequent alliance with the United States, which translates into a massive annual military and economic aid package to Egypt, which represents the second largest recipient of US foreign aid after Israel.
Since signing the peace treaty, Egypt has abandoned the military option against Israel, after recovering lands occupied by the Hebrew state in 1967. It has since encouraged the Palestinians to do the same and take the path of negotiations with Israel to recover their rights. But what has worked with Egypt, due to its political and military weight, has not succeeded with Palestinians, because of – among other things – the latter's extreme military inferiority vis-à-vis Israel.
Hence the dilemma in which the Muslim Brotherhood is caught today. When it was in the opposition, it could safely take strong positions in support of Hamas' armed struggle against Israel. Today it is in power, but is much more reserved, unable to provide substantial assistance to the Palestinian resistance due to Egypt's obligations stemming from the peace treaty, which the Muslim Brotherhood has promised to respect.
While the new regime in Egypt has expressed solidarity with Hamas, these measures have been limited, occasional and largely symbolic – well below the expectations of Gazans who had expected policies diametrically opposed to those of the Mubarak regime, especially in terms of Israel's siege on the coastal enclave.
However, the serious security problem in Sinai – posed by Salafist-jihadist elements in connection with Islamist groups in Gaza (Hamas or others) – leaves the regime little choice but to take action against them, including the closure of smuggling tunnels. These tunnels, which provide essential goods to the people of Gaza, are the only way around the Israeli blockade – but are also used to smuggle weapons and jihadists dangerous to Egypt's security.
The regime must also compromise with the traditional suspicion of the intelligence service and army towards Palestinian Islamists, including Hamas and other groups. It is the intelligence apparatus, in the Mubarak era and today, which is mainly in charge of the Palestinian file, whether in terms of inter-Palestinian reconciliation or contacts with Israel. This choice clearly underlines the "security" dimension that characterises Egypt's approach to this file.
On the other hand, it is the army – following the collapse of the police apparatus during the 25 January uprising – which today effectively handles Sinai security. The loss of 16 border guards – seen as a humiliation – makes it particularly determined to avenge the affront.