Thursday, July 18, 2013

How Hamas Lost Egypt – OpEd

By Osama Al Sharif, for Arab News (via Eurasia) - July 17, 2013

If there is one group, aside from Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, that has suffered great losses from the recent overthrow of President Muhammad Mursi, it has to be Hamas, the Islamist movement ruling over the besieged Gaza Strip since 2007. In fact, the movement, an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood, is now being viewed as a hostile force by Egypt’s new rulers.
The toppling of Mursi was bad news for Hamas, which saw his election as president one year ago a major triumph. Under the rule of deposed President Hosni Mubarak relations with Gaza were cool at best and the former Egyptian leader took the side of the Palestine National Authority in Ramallah when Hamas kicked out PNA officials and cracked down on its archrival Fatah in 2007. The Rafah border crossing was closed frequently and Hamas leaders were not welcome in Cairo.
But the Jan. 25, 2011 Egyptian uprising changed everything. The ruling military council (SCAF) opened the border crossing and received Hamas officials in Cairo and attempted to mediate between President Mahmoud Abbas and his Hamas rivals in order to achieve Palestinian reconciliation. And when Mursi, the Muslim Brotherhood’s candidate, won the presidential elections, Hamas celebrated that victory as its own.
Under Mursi some Hamas officials relocated to Egypt and high-level coordination took place between senior Muslim Brotherhood figures and top Hamas leaders. Still the killing of 16 Egyptian soldiers in Sinai last Ramadan raised questions about the identity of the assailants. Reports suggested that they had come from Gaza. President Mursi came under pressure from the military to launch a wide-range security campaign in northern Sinai and along the borders with Gaza. He resisted but the army was able to send in additional troops and began closing the many underground tunnels that Gazans used to smuggle cars, food and perhaps weapons into the strip.
And when war broke out between Hamas and Israel in November 2012 President Mursi’s mediation was instrumental in concluding a cease-fire. Egypt, for the first time, acted as a guarantor of the agreement.
Close ties with Mursi’s Egypt coincided with Hamas’ break up with Syria’s Bashar Assad. For years the Islamist movement’s Political Bureau was based in Damascus. But when the Syrian uprising broke out and Assad clamped down on his own people, head of the Political Bureau Khaled Meshaal decided it was time to move out of Syria. He denounced the use of force by Assad and that distanced the movement from two key allies; Iran and Hezbollah.

It was a calculated decision. The Arab Spring, which brought the Islamists to power in Egypt and Tunisia, was seen as an important geopolitical shift in the region, one that Hamas sought to invest in. It joined the new coalition that was being formed between Qatar, Turkey and Egypt. Hamas believed that this new alliance will compensate for the loss of its former Iranian and Syrian patrons. It also believed that its new partners will help it extend its authority over the West Bank and replace the teetering power of President Abbas.
No one thought that President Mursi will be toppled by the military after massive demonstrations against him on 30 June. But after his fall the winds shifted and Hamas found itself ostracized by the new Egyptian leadership. Even worse Egyptian hostile media began circulating news that Hamas and Hezbollah were instrumental in the Jan. 29, 2011 events when coordinated attacks on Egyptian prisons successfully freed 30 Islamist prisoners including Mursi. The deposed president now faces criminal charges over his escape on that day. He is also accused of communicating with foreign powers; i.e. Hamas, to facilitate his prison break.
Even worse the media now alleges that Hamas and other militant groups in Gaza are responsible for the state of lawlessness in Sinai and of carrying out attacks against Egyptian soldiers and policemen. Fresh allegations point to Palestinian participation in pro-Mursi sit-ins and of carrying out
attacks against the Republican Guards last week.

There is a coordinated media campaign to taint Hamas in Egypt and implicate it in terror activities. But to this date there are no official accounts to corroborate such allegations. President Abbas was among the first officials to congratulate the new leadership in Egypt. He also criticized Hamas and called on it to stay away of Egypt’s internal affairs.
The loss of Egypt coincided with other events that threaten Hamas’ ties to other regional allies. The change of leadership in Qatar is yet to determine whether the new emir will continue to support the movement as his father did. Also Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been kept busy by local protests at Taksim Square in Istanbul. Certainly his policy towards the Syrian uprising has failed to bear fruit.
Hamas’ reversal of fortune has been quick and painful. It might be forced now to accept PNA terms to end Palestinian factional breach in order to avoid further isolation. In any case Hamas remains an important player on the Palestinian scene. This is probably why it has been revealed by Hamas officials this week that some European countries, including the UK and France, have stepped up back-channel contacts with the Islamist movement. Despite recent strategic losses the movement believes it will remain indispensable to any future peace settlement.
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