by Johannes Lutz
The political landscape of the Middle East changed in 2007 when Hamas took over the Gaza Strip in a spectacular operation. This move caused a considerable shift in the internal leadership of the Sunni fundamentalist organization. Most important, by conquering the Gaza Strip a local Hamas leadership came into powerful positions. This new group of influential persons was keen to maintain its grip on the enclave. The exile leadership on the other hand was concerned with broader strategically decisions1. These disparities caused repeated internal tensions with different sides gaining the upper hand over time2.
The scenery changed again when the Arab Spring shattered the region. In Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood pushed itself within one year into the spotlight of the political theater. This development culminated in the election of Mohammad Morsi as the new President in 20123. The election of a candidate from the Muslim Brotherhood was closely observed by Hamas. The leadership in Gaza and its population in particular hoped for better relations with their big neighbor, a prospect that sparked concerns among other players in the region4. However, Morsi wasn’t elected into a political vacuum, but has to face the legacy of his predecessors.
Regional Security Arrangement with Strong Opposition
Egypt is embedded into a complex regional security arrangement, namely the peace treaty with Israel dating back to 1979. The maintenance of this peace not only guarantees political backing for the Egyptian regime by the United States, but also considerable amounts of military aid that flows from across the Atlantic into the pockets of the Egyptian military5.
Since its early days the peace treaty has faced criticism from large parts of the Egyptian public that condemn it as collaboration with the perceived enemy. Sadat and later Mubarak were repeatedly portrayed as traitors, who sacrificed the Palestinian cause to buy back Sinai. The security cooperation with Israel was at no time more visible than after the takeover of the Gaza Strip by Hamas in 2007. As a reaction, Egypt alongside with Israel put the enclave under siege in what was interpreted by many Egyptians as blind obedience to Israeli demands6.
Trouble in Egypt’s Wild East
The sealing of the border also served genuine Egyptian self-interests. Since it regained control over Sinai following the peace treaty with Israel the sovereignty over the peninsula is of pivotal interest to the Egyptian regime. But Egypt’s Wild East is far from being a safe terrain and the takeover of Gaza by Hamas sparked fears that its impact could further deteriorate the security situation. The sealing of the border thus aimed not only at stopping Palestinians from attacking Israel, but also to prevent Islamist fighters from spreading into Sinai7. However, a lack of political willingness in light of popular resistance to cooperation with Israel and often insufficiently prepared Egyptian forces resulted in an even growing security gap8. The years following Mubarak’s ouster witnessed the infiltration of Sinai by Jihadist groups9 and a flourishing of lucrative smuggling activities across the closed border, including weapons from Libya10.
Morsi, the Contested President
The legacy of Mubarak’s era is not the only constraint that gives Morsi and the Brotherhood a hard time. In addition they have to face a secular opposition movement that fights for its goals and a powerful military apparatus that is eager to defend its enormous privileges. Placed in the middle of this hassle, Morsi’s foremost concern is to consolidate his contested power11. His space for political maneuvering is limited, a factor that also shapes his dealing with Hamas.
Supporting Hamas – Privileging its Exile Leadership
Anti-Israeli protests were restricted under Mubarak, and only on rare occasions was the public allowed to express its unease in a move to lift pressure from the regime. Since the new President owes his position to a public vote and is trapped in an internal power struggle, he has to take the public mood much more into account than his predecessor. The pressure from the street coincides with the ideology of the Brotherhood that is at best suspicious about Israel. In addition Morsi faces at least a moral obligation to show support for Hamas, the offspring of the Brotherhood in the Palestinian Territories. Given these factors the warming in the relations between Hamas and Egypt was not unexpected12.
First signs of this warming could be observed only days after Morsi’s inauguration as the new President when he welcomed several leading Hamas figures. Interestingly, the first one to meet him was Khaled Meshal, head of the exile leadership13,despite the fact that the comparatively moderate exile leadership was at this point in a relative weaker position vis-à-vis the self-confident Gaza leadership 14. Later in the year during Israel’s operation Pillar of Defense, Morsi not only withdrew his ambassador from Tel Aviv, he also sent his Prime Minister Qandil in a show of support to Gaza. In the unfolding negotiations for a few days Cairo turned into a hub of international diplomacy 15, eventually leading to a truce between Hamas and Israel. While the Gaza leadership celebrated the outcome as their victory 16, the one who was granted by Morsi with a seat at the negotiation table was Meshal17.
International Standing Requires Distance from Extremism
Morsi’s engagement as a mediator between Hamas and Israel came not without calculation. In his dealings with the Gaza war Morsi clearly broke with his predecessor and backed Hamas. At the same time he positioned himself successfully as a reliable partner in the region who can bring the fighting parties to the negotiation table18. This approach secures him continued backing by the United States and gives Egypt urgently needed credibility with the World Bank, with which a $4.8 Billion loan is currently being negotiated19.
Morsi’s interaction with Hamas is thus accompanied by a moderate approach that tries to maintain the regional security arrangements. In this light it is counterproductive for Morsi to engage too closely with Hamas leaders as long as they keep pushing extremist positions 20. The privileging of the comparatively moderate exile leadership of Hamas to the disadvantage of its Gaza leadership can therefore be interpreted as a rational move21.
Sovereignty in Sinai
A second factor that strongly influences Morsi’s dealing with Hamas in Gaza is the tense security situation in Sinai, reflected by an attack on the Egyptian border police last August. A total of 16 soldiers were killed while preparing for the traditional Ramadan dinner at the end of the day, prompting a wave of outrage among the Egyptian public. Though Hamas denied any involvement in the incident, the Egyptian public was left with the impression that Palestinian fighters infiltrated Egypt and willingly shot the soldiers on their way to the Israeli border22.
For the average Egyptian citizen the incident was an unacceptable assault on the Egyptian state. Support for Hamas in Gaza dropped sharply, indicating that the national interest is for many Egyptians of greater importance than the Palestinian cause 23. The aftermath of the attack witnessed a massive military operation that sought to reestablish Egyptian control over Sinai 24. In an accompanying measure the Egyptian army put considerable effort in shutting down tunnels to Gaza to prevent the smuggling of weapons and people 25. This policy was only recently approved by a Cairo court and carried out despite heavy criticism from Gaza26.
The Big Brother keeps a Distance
Neither the reestablishing of its sovereignty over Sinai nor the shutting down of smuggling tunnels is an easy task for Egypt. However it is evident that Egypt in its dealing with Gaza is not willing to compromise on its own national security, a policy that is backed by the general Egyptian public. Nevertheless the relations between Egypt and Hamas have greatly expanded. But since Morsi pursues a political course that ensures international backing, the radical Gaza leadership comes off second best. It is the Hamas exile leadership around Meshal which has profited, while showing signs that it is willing to move Hamas under the umbrella of the Muslim Brotherhood.
1 Boaz Ganor. 2013. “Israel and Hamas: Is War Imminent?” In: Orbis, Vol. 57, 120-134
2 The Economist. 2012. “Who represents us now?” The Economist, Web. 8. April 2013.
3 Tarek, Masoud. 2013. “The Muslim Brotherhood in Contemporary Egypt: Democracy Redefined or Confined? (review)” In: The Middle East Journal, Vol. 67, 142-143.
4 Hatuqa, Dalia. 2012. “Morsi's election as seen from Palestine.” Al Jazeera, Web. 8. April 2013. [http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/features/2012/07/20127311434932728.html]
5 Satloff, Robert and Patrick Clawson. 1998. “U.S. Military Aid to Egypt: Assessment and Recommendations.” The Washington Institute, Web 8. April 2013. [http://www.washingtoninstitute.org/policy-analysis/view/u.s.-military-aid-to-egypt-assessment-and-recommendations]
6 Abou-El-Fadl, Reem. 2012. “The Road to Jerusalem through Tahrir Square: Anti-Zionism and Palestine in the 2011 Egyptian Revolution.” In: Journal of Palestine Studies, Vol. 41, p. 6-14.
7 Hauslohner, Abigail. 2010. “The Trouble with Sinai: Egypt's 'Mexico' Problem.” Time World, Web. 8. April 2013. [http://www.time.com/time/world/article/0,8599,1973918,00.html]
8 Sharp, Jeremy. 2008. “The Egypt-Gaza Border and its Effect on Israeli-Egyptian Relations.” CRS Report for Congress, Web. 8. April 2013. [http://www.fas.org/sgp/crs/mideast/RL34346.pdf]
9 Barnett, David. 2013. “Morsi aide: Egypt seeks to cut Gaza arms flow.” Threat Matrix, Web. 8. April 2013. [http://www.longwarjournal.org/threat-matrix/archives/2013/02/essam_haddad_national_security.php]
10 Lev, David. 2013. “IDF: Hamas Makes a Million a Day in 'Taxes' on Smuggled Goods.” Israel National News, Web. 8. April 2013. [http://www.israelnationalnews.com/News/News.aspx/165125#.UWLV6q6_xoi]
11 Dorell, Oren. 2012. “Analysts: Egypt's military won't buck the Brotherhood.” USA Today, Web. 8. April 2013. [http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/world/2012/12/02/egypt-unrest-military-role/1738339/]
12 Abou-El-Fadl, Reem. 2012. “The Road to Jerusalem through Tahrir Square: Anti-Zionism and Palestine in the 2011 Egyptian Revolution.” In: Journal of Palestine Studies, Vol. 41, p. 6-14.
13 Reuters. 2012. “Hamas chief meets Egypt’s Morsi in Cairo, hails ‘new era’.” Haaretz, Web. 8. April 2013.
14 Falk, Richard. 2012. “Understanding Hamas after Khaled Meshaal's Gaza speech.” Al Jazeera, Web. 8. April 2013. [http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/opinion/2012/12/20121215135432787820.html]
15 Abdel Kouddous, Sharif. 2012. “Mohamed Morsi in the Middle.” The Nation, Web. 8. April 2013. [http://www.thenation.com/article/171377/mohamed-morsi-middle#]
16 Kalman. Matthew. 2012. “Ceasefire appears to hold as Palestinians celebrate end of eight days of conflict.” The Independent, Web. 8. April 2013. [http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/middle-east/ceasefire-appears-to-hold-as-palestinians-celebrate-end-of-eight-days-of-conflict-8343845.html]
17 The Economist. 2012. “Who represents us now?” The Economist, Web. 8. April 2013. [http://www.economist.com/news/middle-east-and-africa/21567112-palestinians-have-least-three-poles-power-tugging-them-way-and]
18 CNN. 2012. Egypt and Morsy proved 'pivotal' in Gaza cease-fire talks.” CNN, Web. 8. April 2013. [http://edition.cnn.com/2012/11/20/world/meast/egypt-gaza-morsy]
19 Mulvany, Peter. 2013. “Egypt is avoiding the IMF.” Middle East Confidential, Web. 8. April 2013. [http://me-confidential.com/6952-egypt-is-avoiding-the-imf.html]
20 Shaaban, Omar. 2012. “Hamas and Morsi: Not So Easy Between Brothers.” Carnegie Middle East Centre, Web. 8. April 2013. [http://carnegie-mec.org/publications/?fa=49525]
21 Macfarquhar, Neil. 2012. “Sunni Leaders gaining Clout in Mideast.” The New York Times, Web. 8. April 2013.
22 Berti, Benedetta. 2013. “No blank cheques: Morsi and Hamas.” Fathom Journal, Web. 8. April 2013. [http://www.fathomjournal.org/policy-politics/no-blank-cheques-morsi-and-hamas/]
23 Abou Taleb, Hassan. 2013. “Hamas and revolutionary Egypt.” Ahram Online, Web. 8. April 2013. [http://english.ahram.org.eg/NewsContentP/4/67360/Opinion/Hamas-and-revolutionary-Egypt.aspx]
24 Fahim, Kareem. 2012. “Egyptian Officials Fired Over Soldiers’ Killing in Sinai.” The New York Times, Web. 8. April 2013. [http://www.nytimes.com/2012/08/09/world/middleeast/egypt-sinai-attacks.html?pagewanted=all]
25 Akram, Fares. 2013. “To Block Gaza Tunnels, Egypt Lets Sewage Flow.” The New York Times, Web. 8. April 2013. [http://www.nytimes.com/2013/02/21/world/middleeast/egypts-floods-smuggling-tunnels-to-gaza-with-sewage.html?_r=0]
26 Reuters. 2013. “Gaza Tunnels must be destroyed, Cairo court rules.” Haaretz, Web. 8. April 2013. [http://www.haaretz.com/news/middle-east/egypt-gaza-tunnels-must-be-destroyed-cairo-court-rules-1.506054]