The relationship between Cairo and Hamas soured steadily after the overthrow of President Muhammad Morsi on 3/7/2013. The hostility that emerged between the new Egyptian regime and Hamas was embodied in a series of unilateral Egyptian measures that made matters dramatically worse.
As for the future relationship between the two sides, and in light of regional and international dynamics, while factoring in the weaknesses and strengths of each side, it is possible to put forward three possible scenarios.
First Scenario: Complete rupture: This scenario is based on the premise that the Egyptian regime will go far in its actions against the resistance forces in the Gaza Strip (GS), to the extent of direct or indirect military intervention to resolve the situation there. However, this scenario remains of low likelihood given the possibility that Egypt would then be implicated in GS, a path opposed by many internal and external stakeholders.
Second Scenario: Continuation of the status quo: tense relations endure, governed by strict security considerations. The scenario is based on the premise that current circumstances do not favor a change in the situation in GS on the one hand. On the other hand, Hamas is still coherent and is the strongest there, not to mention the presence of strong popular and official opposition, internally and externally, to direct Egyptian intervention in GS. This scenario is considered less costly than the first scenario, but it will have devastating consequences if the blockade and restrictions remained in place in parallel with a deteriorating humanitarian situation, which may lead over time to an eruption that all sides are wary of.
Third Scenario: Moving towards a détente: Tensions would de-escalate between the Egyptian regime and Hamas and the resistance forces, and with the blockade lifted or eased, given that it’s in everyone’s interest.
However, the current conditions tend to favor the second scenario, while the third scenario would have better odds if more confidence-building measures between the two parties are undertaken, and the Egyptian regime is made to understand that it needs to improve its reputation and avoid the causes that feed extremism and explosion conditions.
The relationship between Cairo and Hamas has been affected by the historically troubled relationship between the Egyptian regime and the Muslim Brothers (MB) movement in Egypt, which is one of the most important and influential opposition movements in the country. The clash with the Egyptian regime was over two important issues: Islamic policies and the peaceful settlement with Israel.
The political rise of Hamas befuddled the calculations of the regime in Egypt, and it has also confused other actors in the Palestinian, regional and international arenas. It also upset the Egyptian leadership, which had long played the role of patron of Palestinian politics. For this reason, Egypt dealt with Hamas as a challenge or a problem, rather than as a natural player in Palestinian politics. Egypt did not conceal its concerns regarding Hamas for the following considerations:
1. Hamas is an Islamic movement affiliated to the MB movement, a strong rival of the regime in Egypt. Its rise gave a strong boost to Islamic movements in Egypt, particularly the MB movement. Hamas was also seen as an inspiring model in fighting the occupation, which again gave the MB movement worldwide an improved standing.
2. Egypt feared it would lose control over the Palestinian issue, especially over GS, which Egypt sees as an Egyptian affair.
3. Fears over the establishment of an Islamic emirate in GS, which would become a launching pad for “radical” Islamists into Egyptian territory and vice versa, especially after the collapse of security in Sinai. This is despite Hamas’s consistent denial of having any intentions to establish such an emirate.
4. Concerns over Israel and the West accusing Egypt of appeasing or sympathizing with Hamas, which would subject its interests to danger and expose it to pressure from Israel’s lobby. This is not to mention that any positive position towards Hamas could be construed as scaling back support for President ‘Abbas and the peace process.
5. Sensitivity over relations between Hamas and some Arab and Islamic nations in the region, such as Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Iran, and Turkey, which allows these countries to play regional roles at the expense of Egypt’s historical role.
These parameters continued to influence the relationship between the Egyptian regime under Sisi and Hamas. It considered Hamas to be an armed militia and an arm for the MB movement in Palestine, in the lax eastern borders of the Egyptian state. The regime is opposed to Hamas’s domination of GS, as long as hostility to Hamas would please Israel, the US, and the West as part of the so-called “war on terror.”
The Egyptian regime ignored Hamas as a Palestinian faction that had won a majority in a general election. It dealt only with the Palestinian Authority (PA), in line with the position of the latter and the Fatah movement vis-à-vis the ruling political regime and political developments in Egypt. This is also in line with the requirements of regional and international powers that refuse to deal with Hamas. Thus, and in the footsteps of the Mubarak regime, Egypt’s conduct has been marked by suspicion, distrust, and accusations. It continued to consider Hamas a security threat and dealt with it through the Egyptian General Intelligence Directorate (GID).
Hamas is aware of this sensitivity, and of the danger of antagonizing Egypt, for it is an asset in its war against the occupation. And given the weight of Egypt and its Arab, regional and international influence; its role in regulating relations with other Palestinian factions particularly Fatah; and its geographical status as a mandatory gateway for GS to the outside world at a time when GS is under a crippling nine-year Israeli blockade, Hamas has decided give assurances to the Egyptian regime on more than one occasion.
Senior Hamas leader Mahmud al-Zahhar, for example, has often stressed that Hamas is an independent Palestinian faction that follows the dictates of no one, and that it is a national liberation movement whose battle is confined to Palestine. Zahar argued that Hamas’s work in Palestine should be seen as a pressure card meant to fulfill Palestinian national rights, but following a policy of non-interference in the affairs of other states led by Egypt.
Deputy Head of Hamas’s Political Bureau Musa Abu Marzuq has often stressed that Hamas respects any choice made by the Egyptian people, stressing that the political polarization in Egypt is in the end an internal Egyptian affair. Marzuq has said that GS and Hamas has nothing to do with what is happening in Sinai, stressing that there is no evidence whatsoever of the charges levelled against Hamas in this regard, and affirming its commitment to the historical relationship with the “big sister Egypt.”
Hamas discourse toward official Egypt was quiet and balanced, even in times of crisis, such as during attempts to break the siege and open the Rafah crossing, the war on GS, the kidnapping of Hamas operatives in Rafah, and hostile and provocative Egyptian government propaganda. However, Hamas maintained its position on major issues, especially with regard to ceasefire with Israel, Palestinian reconciliation, the relationship with the PA and PLO, commitment to resistance, rejecting the peace process, and the relationship with the occupation. This increased tensions with the Egyptian regime, which is not accustomed to a Palestinian party saying “no.”
When addressing the future scenarios of the relationship between Egypt and the resistance, we must point out the strengths and weaknesses of the two sides:
First: The Egyptian Regime
The Egyptian regime has many strong cards in the relationship with GS as follows:
• Egypt controls the Rafah crossing, the only GS gateway into the outside world, in light of the closure of other border crossings with Israel.
• The fact that some Palestinian parties, especially the PA and Fatah, continue to insist on Egypt’s “exclusive” mediation role in negotiations for reconciliation, truces, prisoner swaps, and other Palestinian issues. This gives Egypt preferential advantage over other countries that can play this role. This is not to mention that Egypt too is keen to continue playing this role.
• Strategic cooperation between Egypt and Israel, including coordinating policies concerning the isolation of Hamas.
However, the Egyptian position is also marred by several weaknesses, including:
• The decline of Egypt’s pan-Arab and regional role because of internal and external challenges facing the regime.
• The decline of Egypt’s diplomatic role in outstanding issues between Israel and Hamas.
• The refusal by some Arab and Muslim countries, particularly Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey, of Egyptian actions against Hamas and GS. Perhaps it was Saudi pressure on the Egyptian side, which restrained the escalation of political, judicial and media offensives against GS.
• Security, political and economic decline suffered by the Egyptian state, and the urgent need for full dedication on explosive internal issues.
• Opposition by some official and popular parties in Egypt to Egyptian action toward GS, seen as harmful to Egyptian national interests.
Hamas has many strong cards, as follows:
• Hamas has thwarted measures and plots meant to subdue the resistance and impose conditions upon it, through coercion, blockades, and more than three wars. Hamas maintained control of GS, adjacent to Sinai sensitive spot of the Egypt state.
• The failure of the peace process to make any significant progress. Rather, Israel and the US reneged on previous agreements. Further, the PA failed to make any significant progress on the political track (statehood, settlements, refugees, prisoners, etc.) or even reform Palestinian governance, achieve reconciliation, and present a viable alternative to resistance.
• Despite the immense challenges Hamas has faced during the blockade and war, it remains the most cohesive popular and political bloc in GS compared to Fatah, which is now the second largest bloc in Palestinian life, and which suffered a lot of decline and division in the last decade.
• Hamas enjoys national, pan-Arab, and pan-Islamic popular support and has extensive regional and international relations. The key visit by the Hamas Political Bureau Head Khalid Mish‘al to South Africa, which provoked Israel, is but one small manifestation of this.
• Saudi’s return to its traditional policies, and the decline of the wave that strongly supported the Sisi-led regime in Cairo, along with some breakthrough in the relationship with Hamas, somewhat eased the pressure on GS, with the regime in Egypt reconsidering many of its political calculations.
In contrast, Hamas suffers from several weaknesses in its relationship with the Egyptian regime, as follows:
• Egypt controls the Rafah crossing, the lifeline of GS, which has no other alternative.
• Egypt staged sustained political, media, and judicial campaigns targeting GS and Hamas, which poisoned the atmosphere between the two. Hamas was demonized, smeared, and isolated in preparation for further attack.
• The reluctance of the Egyptian regime to implement the understandings reached in the wake of the 2014 war in GS, seeing that this would give Hamas an edge and help it appear as the victorious party in the war. Thus, the Egyptian regime did not pursue talks regarding the ceasefire (2014) and refused to permanently open the Rafah crossing or discuss the establishment of a seaport and airport in GS, and other issues agreed upon.
• The Egyptian regime destroyed the tunnels and flooded the border region, denying Hamas the ability to source arms, goods, and revenues needed to govern GS. Although this may appear like a weakness for Hamas, it could become a strength, since Egyptian policies could come to be seen as collective punishment without discrimination. This is while continuing the closure of the Rafah crossing could fuel popular anger against the Egyptian authorities and rally people around Hamas, the opposite of what is intended.
Relations between Cairo and Hamas worsened considerably after the ouster of President Muhammad Morsi on 3/7/2013. The emerging hostility between the new Egyptian regime and Hamas was manifested in a series of unilateral measures, including:
• Official government parties, Egyptian media outlets, and judicial bodies have accused Hamas of being involved in attacks and bombings in Egyptian territories, especially in Sinai, something Hamas has consistently denied.
• The intensification of security measures along the border with GS, which included the Egyptian army’s destruction of more than 1,500 tunnels on both sides of the border since the ousting of President Morsi, using explosives, flooding, filling, and electrification, among other methods. In parallel, a buffer zone was established on the Egyptian side of the border, with a depth of more than 2 km, to combat “terrorism” according to the Egyptian authorities. This measure was not implemented even under former President Mubarak.
• Keeping the Rafah Crossing continuously closed for sustained periods of time, under the pretext of security threats in Sinai. The crossing was closed in one year for almost 320 days, or 90 percent of the time between June 2013 and June 2014. In some exceptional cases, it was opened sporadically to allow patients, students, residents of foreign countries, and holders of foreign passports to cross. This is while bearing in mind that the Rafah crossing is the only crossing linking GS and the outside world, at a time when Israel has closed other crossings with GS and imposed strict security measures at the “Erez” crossing.
• Using the judiciary in the war on Hamas, by issuing verdicts against it, including:
– Outlawing contact with Hamas. It suffices here to recall that one of the charges made against former President Morsi was “communicating” with Hamas.
– The Ismailia Misdemeanor Court on 23/6/2013 charged members of Hamas and others of involvement in the storming of the Wadi Natrun prison, to break out MB movement detainees during the January revolution.
– The Cairo Court for Urgent Matters issued a preliminary ruling on 28/2/2014, designating Hamas as a terrorist group.
– An Egyptian court issued on 4/3/2014 a ruling banning Hamas’s activities in Egypt and seizing its assets, despite the fact that Hamas is a Palestinian movement operating in Palestine. Hamas considered the ruling “politically motivated,” before the Egyptian government decided on 11/3/2015 to appeal it on the grounds the court lacked jurisdiction. The Egyptian lawyer who filed the lawsuit dropped the case. Even though this was seen as a positive stance from the Egyptian regime, with Sisi refusing to answer a question about whether Hamas was an enemy of Egypt—a position Hamas leader Salah Bardawil said was a “wise silence” and proof of Hamas’s innocence of the charges—the move raised questions regarding subsequent steps.
• Egypt, as a mediator and guarantor of the Shalit deal, did not take it upon itself to pressure Israel, which reneged on the agreements related to the deal, arrested freed Palestinian prisoners and forcing them to continue serving their previous sentences.
• The negative position during the war on GS in 2014, calling on the parties to show “self-restraint,” and equating the aggressor with the victim. This is not to mention Egypt’s closure of the Rafah crossing, while not allowing international delegations and aid to pass though the crossing, unlike what used to happen under President Mubarak.
• Egypt hesitated to mediate to stop the Israeli aggression on GS, which began on 7/7/2014. The war lasted almost a full week before Egypt presented its first initiate for de-escalation on 13/7/2014, calling for an immediate ceasefire, although it was Israel that initiated hostilities, assassinating six Hamas cadres on 6/7/2014 in Rafah, inviting a barrage of Qassam rockets in retaliation to the Israeli violation of the previous truce. Examining the texts of that initiative praised by the Israeli press, we observe the following:
– Hamas was notified or briefed on the initiative. Hamas heard about it from the media, at a time when Egypt was coordinating with the US, Israel, and President ‘Abbas.
– The initiative referred to resistance activities as “hostile acts,” the Israeli preferred term for resistance.
– The opening of the Rafah crossing was linked to the restoration of security on the ground. This was a pretext Israel consistently used with the Palestinians. Thus, the crossing remained closed even a whole year after the end of the war.
– Hamas’s requests for the initiative to be amended were rejected.
• Defamation of Hamas leaders led by Khalid Mish‘al, Isma‘il Haniyyah and Mahmud al-Zahhar … and others.
• Preventing leaders, cadres and members of Hamas from traveling.
• Multiple Egyptian calls for a permanent closure of the Rafah crossing, complete with revoking the citizenship of 25 thousand Palestinian Egyptians who were legally naturalized.
• Stopping and harassing Gazan fishermen, shooting their boats, arresting them, and even killing some of them.
• Remarkably reducing the number of Palestinians admitted to Egyptian universities and colleges, compared to previous years.
• The kidnapping of four Hamas operatives in Rafah in Egypt on 19/8/2015 was a stark indication of the extent of deterioration of the relationship between the regime in Cairo and Hamas. The kidnapping took place as the operatives left the Rafah crossing and headed to Cairo airport, in a transfer bus guarded by Egypt’s Central Security. They had obtained all official permits to enter and their passports were stamped.
The Egyptian authorities tried to suggest that they were kidnapped by Wilayat Sinai, but the group quickly denied any role in the incident. Although Hamas said the Egyptian authorities were responsible for the safety of its four members, given that the abduction took place in Egypt in a bus under official protection, and hinted that Central Security was involved, Hamas sources said the kidnapping was carried out by Egyptian elements at the behest of Israel. The sources did not rule out the possibility that this was an indication of the strategic partnership between the Egyptian regime and Israel.
• The Egyptian authorities closed off the border zone between GS and Egypt (which is crisscrossed by tunnels), flooding it with seawater to destroy the tunnels. Egypt installed a huge pipeline connected to perforated pipes that dig 30 meters into the ground, and pumped seawater through it to dissolve the sand and mud and destabilize the soil supporting the tunnels, which carried arms to the resistance, and food and other basic items. Despite the harmful effects of this to the environment, water aquifers, and people in Rafah and surrounding areas, as well as to homes and infrastructure there, the move was not only welcomed by Israel but also by ‘Abbas.
• A campaign in the media was launched by entities backed by or affiliated to the regime against GS and Hamas. There were even calls for Egypt to conduct airstrikes and ground operations to overthrow Hamas in GS, and support for Israel voiced against GS. No doubt, these calls confirm that the relationship between the two sides has been poisoned, and that the position of the regime in Egypt vis-à-vis GS and the resistance had changed radically. This is not expected to be overcome in the near term.
In light of the above, we can speak of three possible scenarios that could respectively govern future relations between Egypt and Hamas
First Scenario: Full Estrangement
This scenario is based on the premise that the Egyptian regime will not be content with what it has done so far against the resistance and GS, as down payment for a strategic relationship with Israel and the United States. Therefore, the Egyptian regime could go farther than media incitement, accusations, and judicial rulings against Hamas, and actively crack down on and liquidate wanted Hamas cadres. The regime could even carry out field operations, especially near the border with GS, or provide support, training, and arms to Palestinian forces to intervene in GS against Hamas under various pretexts.
The scenario could quickly snowball out of reactions made by the Egyptian authorities to attacks against army and police in Sinai by “terrorist” elements, whereby the regime accuses the resistance or resistance leaders/members of involvement, and demand them to be handed over. This happened in the past, where people, some of whom were not even on the record in the civil registrar in GS, or were deceased or imprisoned in Israel, were accused without any proof. Perhaps Hamas’s refusal to respond to such demands could be used as justification for the targeting of GS, special operations, direct clashes, surprise attacks, the kidnapping of members and leaders, the destruction of some facilities, or by provoking a state of confusion and chaos which would then lead Palestinian entities to ask Egypt to intervene to resolve the situation in GS.
However, the Egyptian authorities would subsequently find themselves in a quagmire in GS, a security headache that Egypt has been trying to get rid of for a long time. One accusation levelled at President Morsi, in fact, was that he was trying to implicate Egypt in GS and open Sinai to the Palestinians.
This scenario is possible despite its weak odds. Some figures affiliated to the Egyptian regime believe the time is now ideal to attack the resistance. This is especially in the event of a major attack against the army or police in Sinai, or through pressure from some regional or international parties that want to draw the arms of the Palestinian resistance to deviate from their original target, or even at the request of the PA to resolve the internal conflict to its advantage.
Second Scenario: Continuation of the Status Quo
This would mean the endurance of tensions in the relationship governed by strict security considerations. The reason is that the situation at present does not favor a change in GS. On the other hand, Hamas remains the strongest and most cohesive party in GS. This is not to mention the presence of strong popular and official opposition for Egyptian intervention in GS.
This scenario is based on the premise that the enthusiasm of the Egyptian regime for targeting GS has declined, because of the deterioration of the security, political, economic, and social conditions in Egypt. In other words, intervention in or even preoccupation with GS is now a luxury compared to the explosive issues ravaging Egypt. This requires managing the conflict with GS without resolving it by force of arms. At the same time, there could be attempts to rearrange forces in GS through other Palestinian and international parties, with Egypt remaining the regional key to GS. This could be the least costly option amid the continued deterioration of the situation in Egypt.
This scenario could succeed in light of GS’s worsening problems, because of the tight closure and destruction of the tunnels, the strict control of the Rafah crossing, and the Egyptian-Israeli-PA collaboration in the strangulation of GS. Furthermore, the regional climate preoccupied with the war on terror could give cover to such a scenario, not to mention the Arab preoccupation with own agendas, and the inability of friendly parties such as Turkey to provide support for Hamas and GS, because of bad relations with the regime in Egypt. In addition, the reconstruction of GS has been severely delayed, while no mechanisms have been proposed yet for establishing a seaport or airport in GS, which means GS will continue to be isolated, blockaded, and in crisis.
This is the least costly scenario for Egypt, yet the one with the deepest impact on influencing and subduing Gazans in terms of their future choices, while preoccupying the resistance by forcing it to focus on precluding security vacuum in GS that could be filled by extremist forces.
Third Scenario: Détente
This scenario would see attempts for de-escalation between the Egyptian regime and Hamas, directly or indirectly. This may proceed through Arab and regional mediation, to redraw the relationship by emphasizing common ground between the two sides, until a formula acceptable to all relevant sides is reached to lift the blockade on GS partially or completely.
This scenario has many considerations, including internal challenges and circumstances in Egypt and GS, which encourage de-escalation, as more pressure on GS could lead to an explosion, most definitely against Israel. For this reason, the latter will try to ease tensions to focus on other priority issues such as the West Bank, Jerusalem, and regional issues.
This scenario could be more acceptable during the coming period, as it would serve the interests of all parties. Indeed, the Egyptian regime faces many internal and regional challenges, enough to preoccupy it for a considerable period of time. Furthermore, Egypt’s involvement in GS would be a major security and political challenge that Egypt has long avoided.
This is not to mention the pressure that some Arab and international parties could put on the Egyptian regime, because they see Hamas as an element of stability in the region. Hamas has a number of cards than can upend current arrangements, and since the explosion that could happen would not be confined to GS and would affect other parties in the region.
Hamas has many strengths that are a source of concern for the occupation and international powers. The issue of captive Israeli soldiers in Hamas’s hands, its military capabilities and endurance in the recent war, and its ability to govern GS and maintain the order even in difficult circumstances, all push in the direction of maintaining the calm. Perhaps Tony Blair’s initiative is part of this context.
If the state of division could be ended, especially in light of the current Palestinian Intifadah, this would invalidate Egyptian pretexts used to target the resistance or blockade GS. The Egyptian gateway could be the best to achieve this reconciliation.
This scenario could allow the Egyptian regime to continue to deal officially with the Palestinian presidency, while maintaining relations with Hamas at a bare minimum, mainly through security channels, avoiding open conflict. This would give the regime the ability to operate on the Palestinian arena, while maintaining a margin that allows it to influence Hamas, and even develop ties in a way that could allow it to contain or accommodate Hamas.
Hamas, under this scenario, would seek to augment its power and capitalize on favorable regional developments. Regarding coordination with its old-new rival Muhammad Dahlan, to make an opening in the wall of its relationship with Egypt: while it is true that the man has important regional and international relations, particularly with Egypt, and while it is true he still has influence over Fatah leaders, cadres, and supporters, especially in GS, this choice remains unlikely given the historic animus between them. Indeed, a bid like this could cause aftershocks in Hamas, and angry reactions from Hamas officials who believe the relationship with Dahlan cannot be rectified by interest-based calculations.
Hamas has sought to understand the determinants of Egyptian policy and allowable ceilings. It is aware of the danger of antagonizing Egypt, and has thus dealt with Egyptian attitudes with patience and discipline, while acknowledging Egyptian national role in relation to the Palestinian issue. Hamas also sought to reassure Egypt, stressing it is a strategic asset and not a threat to Cairo.
Internal Palestinian problems and lack of seriousness in reconciliation efforts, as well as the tense situation with Egypt and the lack of critical developments at the level of Israel, the region, and the world, mean that the second scenario remains the most likely one in the present circumstances. However, there are hopes of a gradual breakthrough, if the Palestinian and Egyptian sides could engage in more confidence-building measures, which would help ease the blockade on GS.
Although there are powerful parties that are still wagering on eliminating resistance in GS, there are other parties that are increasingly convinced of the futility of the peace process, and that it is time to coexist with resistance forces as part of the interests-based equation in the region.
Recommendations and Proposals
• Taking care not to antagonize Egypt and let the relationship deteriorate further. It is important to preserve and develop the relationship instead, to calm fears and ease the GS blockade.
• Coordinating and collaborating with international solidarity movements, forming pressure groups to support the Palestinian issue, and strengthening relations between resistance movements and popular and partisan circles in Arab and Muslim countries, to ward off any attempt to undermine the resistance.
• Encouraging the Intifadah and supporting it in the Palestinian interior, as a leverage for resistance and national action, an incentive for Palestinian reconciliation, and an influential factor in easing the GS blockade.
• Imposing discipline on all resistance operatives on the ground to prevent being drawn to harmful reactions, and maintaining the integrity of resistance arms.
• Imposing discipline on the rhetoric of resistance forces, while explaining facts professionally and credibly.
• Preserving the arms of the resistance, improving its capabilities, and honing its operations to achieve its goals in the resistance and liberation project.
* Al-Zaytouna Centre thanks Dr. Walid al-Mudallal for authoring the original text upon which this strategic assessment was based.