Recent understandings reached between Egypt and Hamas, following a visit by a high-level delegation from Gaza Strip (GS) to Cairo, mark a major development in the context of the strained relationship between the two sides.
While the growing crisis between Qatar and a number of Arab countries were a motive for Egypt to seek a major coup in its relations with Hamas, the escalatory measures by President Mahmud ‘Abbas against GS had a clear impact on pushing Hamas towards more opening with Egypt, and conducting talks with former Fatah leader Muhammad Dahlan.
A number of political, economic, and security factors currently favor the continuation of engagement between Hamas and Egypt, and the implementation of their recent accords. This could provide an opportunity to ease the blockade on GS in varying degrees, and allow Cairo to enhance its presence in the Palestinian issue up to brokering a prisoner swap deal between Hamas and Israel. Recent developments also pave the way for putting pressure on ‘Abbas and Fatah to accept major changes in the running of Palestinian national action institutions in the coming period.
The recent accords between Egyptian officials and a Hamas delegation from GS in mid-June, 2017, took political circles by surprise in terms of both timing and substance, marking an important development in the context of the relationship between the two sides.Indeed, the weeks that preceded those accords witnessed major escalation in the positions of the governments of Egypt, UAE, Saudi Arabia, and Bahrain vis-à-vis Qatar, the Muslim Brothers (MB) movement, and Hamas, to the point of accusing them of terrorism and supporting terrorism. That triggered a dangerous crisis in the Gulf region, with negative implications for inter-Arab relations and the restive regional landscape.
This sudden development in Hamas-Egyptian relations raises many questions about the motives for Egypt, the repercussions for the divided and tense Palestinian landscape, the future of Egyptian-Palestinian relations, and Hamas’s relations with regional parties.
In 2007, the crisis between Egypt and Hamas started, following tensions and then armed conflict in GS between Fatah and Hamas, leading to the latter seizing GS and expelling Palestinian Authority (PA) security agencies from the Strip. This triggered the Palestinian split, all attempts to resolve which have so far failed. The clashes took place months after Hamas’s major victory in the legislative elections in 2006, after which a Palestinian government was formed under the leadership of Isma‘il Haniyyah, which did not go on to have warm relations with the government of Egypt under deposed President Hosni Mubarak.
Since Hamas seized GS, Egypt has closed the Rafah crossing for most of the time, with the exception of urgent/humanitarian cases and some sporadic and extremely limited periods of opening. This took place in conjunction with the Israeli closure of the remainder of crossings out of GS, imposing a tight blockade on the Strip that has lasted throughout subsequent years to the present day.
Tensions between Egypt’s government and Hamas increased steadily after Israel’s then Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni declared from Cairo, a decision to wage war on Hamas and GS in late December 2008. The relationship continued to undergo a state of ebb and flow in the rest of Mubarak’s tenure.
Following a marked improvement in the relationship between Hamas and Cairo under President Muhammad Morsi between mid-2012 and mid-2013, relations deteriorated again but in an unprecedentedly dangerous manner, when a military coup removed Morsi and replaced it with a hostile leadership. The new Egyptian administration accused Hamas of meddling in Egyptian internal affairs, supporting the MB movement in Egypt, and supporting extremist terror groups in Sinai that have targeted Egyptian troops. Morsi was tried for collaborating with Hamas, and Egyptian courts issued verdicts designating Hamas’s military wing as a terror group, albeit these court orders were not upheld.
This was followed by serious escalation as tensions between the two sides reached a new peak. The Egyptian authorities carried out a large-scale effort to destroy tunnels into GS, as Egyptian forces were mobilized along the border with GS, raising fears things could escalate into a military confrontation with GS, before the situation gradually de-escalated.
The deterioration of the relationship between Egypt’s leadership and Hamas throughout the tenure of Abdul-Fattah al-Sisi carried several implications:
1. The crippling blockade and the destruction of the tunnels, which were a major lifeline for GS, caused a humanitarian disaster for the Strip in all aspects of life, damaging both the economy of GS and hurt the Egyptians living on the border with GS, who relied on trade with GS for their livelihoods.
2. The economic situation in Sinai was hit by the tension between the two sides. On the one hand, the lack of coordination and cooperation between Hamas and Egypt’s security services now undermined the latter side’s ability to keep the security in Sinai. On the other hand, the demolition of structures and homes in large areas adjacent to GS antagonized the local population, which already lived in extreme poverty, with implications for the security situation, as it motivated some of those affected by these measures to engage in anti-government activities.
3. As a result of the tensions with Hamas, the Egyptian leadership lost its ability to play an influential role in the Palestinian issue, which it had for years monopolized with official Arab authorization. Its role declined visibly in the Palestinian issue, especially with regard to brokering reconciliation talks between Fatah and Hamas. This has had a negative impact on inter-Palestinian relations, which led to further deepening of the split.
The relative improvement in the relationship between Hamas and Egypt has coincided with two important developments that could explain some of the motives behind the shift.
1. The crisis between Qatar, and Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Bahrain, which has created a state of strong polarization. After Hamas was dragged into the crisis, an important shift took place leading to the engagement of Hamas. It is likely that the main motive behind the shift and sudden about-face in the positions of those countries, is the wide negative reaction from the Arab and Muslim countries to accusations of terrorism against Hamas, a resistance movement fighting occupation, causing huge embarrassment to these countries and damaging their effort to pressure Qatar. Interestingly, Hamas was excluded from a terror list issued by the four countries at a later time, which included the names of several political figures and entities.
Instead of continuing to escalate against Hamas, signs of an Egyptian-Emirati desire to engage with Hamas emerged, in order to achieve several goals at once; distancing Hamas from Qatar to deny it a strong political card, capitalize on the relationship with Hamas to restore Egypt’s role in the Palestinian issue, and secure a good position for Dahlan in the Palestinian arena.
2. In terms of the timing, it is closely related to ‘Abbas’s escalatory measures against Hamas and GS. In the recent period, ‘Abbas brought immense pressures to bear to besiege Hamas and force it to accept his terms, including relinquishing its control of GS, as part of his gradual plan to deal with GS as a rogue entity. This explains ‘Abbas’s angry reaction following Hamas’s recent understandings with Egypt, which Fatah saw—as expressed by Muhammad Ashtieh, Fatah central committee member—as giving Hamas an “outlet” and thwarting the plan to step up pressures and contain it.
‘Abbas’s measures against GS had affected civil servant salaries, allocations for prisoners and martyrs families, and even reached the point of asking Israel to reduce electricity supply to GS. Most likely, ‘Abbas’s tough measures against GS were an important motive for Hamas’s leadership there to move towards Egypt and Dahlan, an arch rival of ‘Abbas over leadership of Fatah.
In addition to this important motive, there are others related to the constrained regional and political climate pressuring Hamas, led by the fallout from the Gulf crisis, the unrest in the region, and the anti-Hamas positions declared by the Trump administration, which he expressed explicitly in a speech to Arab leaders in Riyadh.
No doubt, countering growing regional and international pressures, and averting further sieges and targeting, are an important objective and priority for Hamas in light of the current difficult circumstances.
It is not clear so far whether the recent Egyptian engagement of Hamas is a long-term strategy shift. It is not clear if it is a new conviction that there is a need to adopt a new political approach to Hamas, a key Palestinian component with which a strong relation is required to facilitate reconciliation. Whether it is a temporary position dictated by the tactics of managing the crisis with Qatar and the desire to promote Dahlan and his role in the Palestinian arena.
The future of the relationship between Egypt and Hamas is expected to be influenced by a number of determinants, including:
1. The political determinant related to Egypt’s role in the Palestinian issue, which was affected by the tensions with Hamas, the party that controls GS and enjoys broad popular support in the West Bank (WB).The importance of this aspect for the Egyptian leadership is likely to increase in the coming period, to guarantee Egyptian interests and head off the involvement of other parties competing for the management of the Palestinian dossier.
2. A second political determinant is related to Egypt’s regional and international relations, particularly those involving Israel, the UAE, and the United States, and the extent of the influence Cairo’s engagement with Hamas would affect those relations, for better or worse.Indications suggest the recent Egyptian accords with Hamas were pre-coordinated with the UAE, a key backer of Muhammad Dahlan. Meanwhile, no Israeli or US official positions have been made on Hamas’s recent accords with Egypt and Dahlan. However, it is likely Egypt and the UAE, both of which maintain strong relations with Israel and the Trump administration, can convince the two countries of the merits of containing Hamas in the region and drawing it away from Qatar and Iran.
3. The third political determinant is related to the opportunities available to reshuffle the leadership structure of Fatah and the Palestinian arena in general, in light of a clear distance emerging between ‘Abbas and Cairo, and the estrangement between him and UAE. Therefore, there is a chance to improve relations with Hamas while giving Dahlan a role to oversee plans for the economic revival of GS, which would enhance his political presence and popularity in the Palestinian arena.
4. The security determinant, which is related to curbing the unrest in Sinai and along the GS border. This factor is pushing clearly towards Egyptian engagement with Hamas in GS, to improve the security situation in Sinai, which has brought immense pressure on the Egyptian government amid an escalation of attacks on Egyptian troops.
5. The ideological determinant: This is related to the position on the MB movement in Egypt, which shares similar ideological backgrounds with Hamas. This relationship has negatively affected the relations between Hamas and the governments of Egypt and the UAE in the past period.
It seems that the importance of this factor has varied in the calculations of Egypt and the UAE in the recent period, on account of several political developments. Perhaps the new charter adopted by Hamas in May 2017 has helped project the image desired by the movement for itself, as a Palestinian national liberation movement whose agenda and priorities stem from the requirements of the Palestinian issue and the interests of the Palestinian people, without contradicting its general Islamic principles.
6. The economic determinant: This is related to trade with GS. The Rafah crossing is the only land crossing open to GS to the outside world, if Israeli crossings are excluded. The flow of Egyptian goods through the Rafah crossing to GS will bring economic benefits to the Egyptian side, and improve the livelihoods of the inhabitants of the areas adjacent to GS, as well as those of GS’s residents. This means the economic determinant could act as a positive factor for easing the GS blockade, and improving relations with Hamas and GS .
Thus, it is clear that these determinants enhance the odds for the continuation of the engagement and the implementation of recent accords. On the ground, some immediate measures were implemented with regard to bringing in Egyptian fuel to GS. The GS Ministry of Interior declared for its part the establishment of a 100-meter wide security buffer zone along with the border with Egypt. Hamas also announced a technical delegation led by its politburo member Rouhi Mushtaha would follow-up the implementation of the agreements with Egypt, a strong indication of a mutual desire to implement these accords.
1. Conditional tactical de-escalation: Based on the convergence of interests among Egypt, Hamas, and Muhammad Dahlan temporarily to achieve some interim goals, which would end once the justifications are fulfilled, including: stabilizing Sinai, creating a wedge between Hamas and Qatar, creating a foothold for Dahlan in the Palestinian arena, gradually lifting the Egyptian prong of the blockade of GS, thereby prolonging Hamas’s control on the Strip, and thwarting Mahmud ‘Abbas’s bid to dictate his terms to Hamas. This scenario assumes the parties have different backgrounds and agendas, with the grounds for rivalry and divergence among them being greater than the grounds for partnership, which is otherwise compulsory. If Egypt no longer needs Hamas in Sinai, Dahlan cements his influence in GS, and alternatives emerge to Hamas, the de-escalation could unravel. This scenario has a high degree of likelihood.
2. Sustained de-escalation: This assumes the concerned parties’ have a stake in partnership, and practical measures to cement cooperation among them after verifying the benefits and credibility of the partnership, leading to a sustained course over a long period, due to the lack of better alternatives for all parties. However, the radical differences between these parties especially over “political Islam,” the positions on armed resistance, reforming the Palestinian polity, the peace process, and the Arab uprisings are all centrifugal factors that are hard to sidestep in the long run. This renders such a scenario more difficult and less likely.
A successful de-escalation between Egyptian leadership and Hamas could have any number of major implications, most prominently:
1. Gradual easing of the GS blockade up to mostly lifting it by the Egyptians, under the best case scenario. Thus, having positive outcomes at the humanitarian and economic levels.
2. Enhancement of relations between Cairo and Hamas, overcoming tensions and strained relations, in favour of increasing Egyptian presence in the Palestinian issue. This gives Cairo a strong hand to help broker a prisoner swap deal between Hamas and Israel.
3. Weakening ‘Abbas ’s influence in the Palestinian landscape, opening up gaps for his opponents and would-be successors (including Dahlan) to make a move to seize Fatah’s leadership and the leadership of Palestinian national action institutions in the coming period.
4. Enhancing the ability of the Egyptian security services to secure Sinai, bearing in mind that the relationship with Hamas and GS is only one of many factors that influence the security situation in Sinai. For there are several internal Egyptian dynamics that fundamentally affect the security of the peninsula. 5. It does not appear that improving relations between Hamas and Egypt/the UAE, in the manner that it has proceeded so far, will prejudice Hamas’s close relations with Qatar. Qatar is well aware of the pressures being brought against GS and the fallout from Mahmud ‘Abbas ’s measures against GS, and also understands the importance of maintaining good ties to Hamas, which expressed a positive position vis-à-vis Qatar during the current crisis with some Arab countries. Hamas also stressed its keenness to avoid damaging its relations with Doha, to which Qatar gives great credit for standing by it politically and at the humanitarian level throughout the past years.In the coming period, it is expected that Hamas would seek to forge balanced relations with the Arab parties, in isolation from their contradicting positions and interests.
5. It does not appear that improving relations between Hamas and Egypt/the UAE, in the manner that it has proceeded so far, will prejudice Hamas’s close relations with Qatar. Qatar is well aware of the pressures being brought against GS and the fallout from Mahmud ‘Abbas ’s measures against GS, and also understands the importance of maintaining good ties to Hamas, which expressed a positive position vis-à-vis Qatar during the current crisis with some Arab countries. Hamas also stressed its keenness to avoid damaging its relations with Doha, to which Qatar gives great credit for standing by it politically and at the humanitarian level throughout the past years.In the coming period, it is expected that Hamas would seek to forge balanced relations with the Arab parties, in isolation from their contradicting positions and interests.
6. It is possible that regional and international pressures on Hamas would decrease in the short term, to give Egypt and the UAE a chance to influence it as desired by regional and international parties.
7. It is possible some parties would seek to create a wedge in the ranks of Hamas, by playing up the differences in interests and priorities of action between its interior and diaspora wings, and also between GS and other territories, bearing in mind that similar attempts in the past have failed.
1. The need to lift the unjust and inhumane blockade imposed on GS for the past 11 years for political reasons, and the need for all sides to stop using humanitarian issues to put pressure and impose dictates.
2. Stressing the importance of overcoming the crisis in the relationship between Egypt and Hamas/Palestinian factions, and pressing ahead with the engagement and the normalization of Egyptian-Palestinian relations, in line with the brotherly relations between the Egyptian and Palestinian peoples and common interests. Egypt’s central role in supporting the Palestinian issue and people must be emphasized.
3. Stressing the need to resolve Arab differences through dialogue, and keeping the Palestinian issue away from inter-Arab conflicts and polarizations. At the same time, Palestinian factions must all ensure non-interference in the affairs of Arab countries, and remain positively neutral towards Arab conflicts, in order to maintain a minimum level of Arab support.
4. Continuing efforts to realize national and communal reconciliation and overcome the causes of the division, and reuniting the Palestinian administration on the basis of national partnership, justice, and democracy away from dominance and exclusion policies.
5. Supporting the cohesion of resistance forces, especially Hamas, and their internal structures and decision-making mechanisms, to counter ongoing attempts to divide and undermine its ranks.