Reading Time: 8 minutes

By Dr. Mohsen Moh’d Saleh: 

Due to a number of communalities – Arabism, Islamism, language, history and geographical proximity, Egypt and Palestine are bound to have relations with each other. Egypt knows very well that its national security partly depends on the security of its eastern front – Palestine.

On Understanding the Egyptian Role

Due to its potential human, economic and leadership capabilities, Egypt has played since the formation of the Arab League in 1945 a “paternal” and dominant role in the Palestinian issue. It led the Arab armies in the battles against “Israel”, and it was the driving force behind the formation of the Palestinian Liberation Organization (P.L.O.) and the legitimacy that it earned as the sole representative of the Palestinian peoples.

Admittedly, since Camp David treaty of September 1978, Egypt has been largely neutralized, and the position of the Egyptian regime on the Palestinian issue has been characterized by profound confusion and regression, particularly during the last years. Moreover, the regime has failed to effectively exploit its assets to play the expected national role, or to pressure towards attaining the national Palestinian rights. Nonetheless, Egypt continues to have a significant role in the Palestinian issue that cannot by any means be superseded.

Whatever the differences between Egypt and any of the Palestinian factions, Egypt cannot afford to totally and abruptly end its relations with any of the powerful factions because it will then loose both its “paternal” role and ability to influence the complex Palestinian issue.

In case of conflict between two Palestinian factions, Egypt never forgoes its meditating role. It may warn or condemn this or that faction, but it always see to it that all the factions should eventually consider, whether they like or not, its role as the arbitrator or the judge.

When in a strong position, Egypt may even be the deterring factor that imposes conditions and strongly reprimands “trouble makers”, as was the case with Haj Amin, al-Shuqairi and even Arafat himself.

Dealing with Hamas

In dealing with Hamas, the Egyptian regime is seriously concerned that the success of the Islamic model of this Islamist organization would adversely affect its position on two fronts, internally, by strengthening its major political opponent, the Muslim brotherhood, or, externally, by weakling both its pro-western-secular drive and its call for a peace settlement.

Thus, though the skyrocketing prestige and popularity of Hamas as well as its formation of the Palestinian government were totally unacceptable to the Egyptian regime, it avoided open confrontation with the organization as this would be most damaging to its all important role in the Palestinian scene.

Simultaneously, Egypt strives to maintain semblance relationship with, and influence over, Hamas; and, at the same time, cautiously, but systematically, drive to control the organization so that it will not adversely affect the peace process and the Palestinian self-governing authority. The Egyptian regime has even hoped that this measure of influence may develop into a kind of containment or “taming” of Hamas.

However, the incompatibility between Hamas and the Egyptian regime is due to two underlying reasons. Firstly, Hamas is an Islamist organization, and, secondly, it is a resistance movement. Indeed, both these factors are inherent in the essence of Hamas’ ideology, being officially called “the Islamic resistance movement”.

The Egyptian regime exhibits great sensitivity in dealing with all Islamist movements, particularly the Muslim brotherhood, its major political foe that may eventually control the destiny of Egypt, and of which Hamas is a known offshoot.

The Egyptian regime tries its utmost best to present a secular – liberal model, while it dismisses all fundamentalist groups claiming they are either extremist or satellites of the Iranian project in the region.

On the other side, Egypt opts for a peaceful settlement with “Israel’, and supports all Palestinian groups that are committed to this process. It argues that the call for resistance in the present circumstances is politically unrealistic and futile; and that resistance advocates do not presumably understand the realities on the ground, which require a diplomatic initiative to extract the Palestinian rights and to establish a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

The position and policy of Hamas

Hamas is well aware of these two factors, but it is doing its best to assure the Egyptian regime that its Islamic programme is for the Palestinians only, and that it does not interfere in the internal affairs of the Arab countries, which has, in fact, been ascertained during the last 21 years. Moreover, Hamas insists that its resistance project is independent and focuses on the internal Palestinian scene, and that it reflects the interests and will of a large sector of the Palestinian peoples, which, likewise, has been established by the latest fair and free elections. Additionally, Hamas poised that its resistance drive should be viewed as an exclusive pressure mechanism to attain the Palestinian rights and not the opposite.

Hamas is well aware that Egypt is its major official gate to approach the Arab regimes, and to win legitimacy in both the Muslim and the Third Worlds.

Hamas also understands the dangers of estranging the multiply powerful and prestigious Egypt, which constitutes the only safety valve to the besieged Gaza Strip. The organization is also aware that however the conflict with the Egyptian regime may be, the economically and humanly empowered Egypt remains, with its strong Arab and Islamic credentials, a staunch supporter of Palestine and the Palestinian cause.

With its outstanding flexibility and dynamism, Hamas strives to employ a number of communalities to calm the Egyptian regime, and to exhibit a spirit of responsibility towards the Egyptian – Palestinian national interests. But it pursues an independent path on matters related to its Islamic vision and commitment to the resistance, or when it realizes that the Egyptian regime exercises undue pressure on matters of principle such as the peace process or the organization’s rights in the Palestinian scene.

The Development of the Relationship

The first Egyptian arbitration between Fatah and Hamas took place in December 1995. The Egyptian patronized negotiations between the two factions and achieved a major breakthrough when Hamas undertook not to obstruct the presidential and legislative election, which it, anyhow, decided to boycott then.

On Hamas’ retaliation to the assassination of martyr Yahya Aiyash by a series of operations that shocked “Israel”, Egypt hosted on anti – terrorist conference in Sharm al-Shaykh in April 1996, which was attended by several regional and international bodies. It also supported some severe measures undertaken by the Palestinian Authority against Hamas and its fighters, including dismantling its organization and military cells, closure of its institutions and damaging its image.

The Egyptian regime did not care a dam about Hamas during the following difficult years during which it was suppressed and brought “under control”. But the leading role of Hamas in Al-Aqsa intifada (uprising) and its growing popularity, as well as the failure of the Palestinian Authority to bring the Intifada to a halt without the consent of Hamas, and its inability to pursue the peace process, had demonstrated the urgent need to control and direct the national Palestinian path.

Hence was the resumption of Egypt’s role and its patronization of the November 2002 negotiations between Fatah and Hamas. The Egyptian efforts bore fruits in the March 2005 negotiations that led to the Cairo agreement in which Fatah, Hamas and other Palestinian organizations laid down the basis for the Palestinian drive during the coming period, which provided for a lull until the end of 2005 and the provision of a conducive environment for the municipal and legislative elections.

Hence al-Aqsa intifada came to an end, and the new president, Mahmud Abbas, was given a chance to take up the initiative to put the Palestinian house in order in both the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. However, this was all that ‘Abbas wanted, and neither Fatah leadership nor the Egyptian government were keen about the implementation of the other clauses, particularly the one related to the revitalization and development of the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO).

It was generally assumed – in Egypt, the Arab world and the international community – that Fatah would achieve a resounding victory in the elections that would legalize its position vis a vis Hamas, which was expected to be relegated in the inferior position of a minority that has to accept the will of the majority, whose assumed leader, President Abbas, promised to resume the peace process and disarm the resistance.

But the victory of Hamas in these elections confused Egypt and the others, while Hamas tried to allay the paramount fears in Egypt and elsewhere by its decision that its leadership travel in a courtesy Arab and international tour that would start with Egypt as its first destination.

Notwithstanding its external concern, the Egyptian regime was bound to assume its “paternal” role, and to publicly declare its respect to the outcome of the elections and recognition of Hamas government. But, practically, it viewed this victory and Hamas government as a problem, and not a natural development in the Palestinian democratic process. In the words of a senior Egyptian official to some of Hamas’ leaders, “What a great catastrophe that you have made”.

However, the Egyptian government had largely, and most of the time, dealt with Hamas government through the security vein, and neither Premier Haniyyah nor his ministers were able to directly approach their Egyptian counterparts.

The Egyptian government urged Hamas to be in harmony with the demands of the Quartet and to observe the agreements concluded by the PLO. In the words of its foreign minister “We will not support whoever sets the clock back”. Moreover, the Egyptian government did not exert any serious effort to overcome the siege, on the contrary it was more supportive of the blockade and its dictates than defying it and rallying Arab – Islamic opinion against it.

Some reports had suggested that Egypt trained the special force, under the leadership of Dahlan, which had reportedly been involved in the security chaos and in the attempt to discredit and secure the collapse of Hamas government. Other reports had even maintained that some Egyptian official reprimanded Dahlan for his negligence and indifference that enabled Hamas to control Gaza, and consequently hurt Egypt’s national security.

Hamas control over the Strip provoked the displeasure of the Egyptian regime, which had recognized president Abbas and the emergency government that he formed in Ramallah, while its relationship with Hamas was kept at a low ebb. Meanwhile, Abbas had been recognized as the intermediary for the conclusion of the detainees’ deal and the consequential liberation of the Israeli soldier Shalit. Fatah, Hamas and other Palestinian factions had also authorized him to patronize the Palestinian – Palestinian dialogue, but he had been accused by Hamas, as well as many Palestinians, Arabs and Muslims, of being a partner in the blockade and in the attempts to secure the failure of Hamas experiment and the collapse of its government.

The Egyptian regime found in its declared commitment to international agreements and in the crossings’ agreement concluded between the Palestinian Authority and “Israel” an opportune excuse for this defeatist stand. However, this pretext was not convincing to many, as Egypt was not a signatory of the crossings’ treaty, whose duration was, anyhow, for one year only, that expired in November 2006; and the treaty had never been renewed. Additionally, “Israel” never respected this treaty, and had repeatedly violated its clauses, used them to humiliate the Palestinians and to bring them to their knees.

The Egyptian national call should have dictated the opening of Rafah crossing, particularly so as ‘Israel” had persistently claimed that it had withdrawn from the Gaza Strip, and, thus, had no responsibility towards it.

Supported by thousands of Palestinians, Hamas defiantly crossed Rafah passage in January 2008, at a time when “Israel” had tightened its blockade. This provoked Egypt’s anger and embarrassment, but it allowed for several days the citizens of Gaza to buy their needs from Egyptian markets in an attempt to swim with the tide of the widespread sympathy to the Palestinian cause. However, after a few days, Egypt closed the passage, and the Egyptian minister for foreign affairs threatened “to break the legs” of any person who crosses the frontiers.

Many analysts have concluded that the style of the “pressure cooker”, so to speak, has been systematically pursued on the issue of Gaza. Thus, whenever the tight siege is about to conceive a massive reaction, the “safety whistler” blows and the crossing are temporarily opened to release the tension. But the “cooked meal”, namely the overthrow of Hamas government, would remain on fire until it is ready at the opportune time.

Though frustrated by the Egyptian impartial stand, Hamas had once more accepted Egypt’s’ patronage of the Fatah – Hamas dialogue and the Palestinian reconciliation in general. But ultimately, Hamas, supported by three other Palestinian factions, refused to attend the reconciliation conference in Cairo, scheduled in October 2008, because it felt that it will be a mere theatric cover up to extend Abbas’ presidency while the central issues would be referred to committees and consequently drag on as happened previously. Hence, the Palestinian Authority, and probably Egypt too, would achieve their ulterior objectives behind the conference. Moreover, Hamas argued that Abbas’ failure to release its prisoners demonstrated his indifference and unwillingness to conclude reconciliation.

Hamas boycott of the conference provoked Egypts’ anger, particularly so as it had exerted great effort to arrange for this gathering and secure its success. It considered Hamas’ position as a direct insult and squarely blamed it for this development. Hence, the Israeli war on Gaza took place at a time of extreme tension between Hamas and Egypt, and amongst rumors that some Egyptian leaders were determined to “discipline Hamas’ trouble makers”.

This article is a translation of the arabic article published by Dr. Mohsen Moh’d Saleh on Aljazeera.Net on 15-1-2009