Cairo talks underscore Egypt’s complicated relationship with Hamas

Egypt’s blocking Haniyeh’s visit was partly to stop him from continuing his travels to Doha and Ankara and points to deep fractures within Hamas itself.
Sunday 17/11/2019
A member of Palestinian security forces loyal to Hamas stands guard at the border area with Egypt in the southern Gaza Strip.     (Reuters)
High tensions in the air. A member of Palestinian security forces loyal to Hamas stands guard at the border area with Egypt in the southern Gaza Strip. (Reuters)

CAIRO - After the recent tensions between Islamic Jihad and Israeli forces on the Gazan border, leading to the assassination of Islamic Jihad commander Bahaa Abu al-Atta in an Israeli air strike, Hamas seems to be the closest to Egyptian authorities concerning truce in Gaza.

However, the relationship between Egypt and Hamas, complicated by the movement’s long-standing relations with Egypt’s regional rivals, became more complicated after Cairo blocked Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh from joining a delegation in the country.

Egyptian border authorities prevented Haniyeh on November 6 from joining a Hamas delegation that was to meet with Egyptian intelligence officials.

Led by Khalil al-Hayya, vice-president of Hamas’s Gaza bureau, the Hamas delegation talked with Egyptian intelligence representatives, mediating on behalf of the Palestinian Fatah movement, regarding potential peace talks with Israel.

Egypt’s blocking Haniyeh’s visit was partly to stop him from continuing his travels to Doha and Ankara and points to deep fractures within Hamas itself, analysts said.

Mousa Abu Marzook, a member of Hamas’s political bureau, previously told Al-Hayat newspaper that Egyptian authorities had been forbidding Haniyeh from travelling outside Gaza and Egypt for three years to stop him from meeting with Egypt’s political opponents in Turkey and Qatar.

Haniyeh’s most recent trip outside of Gaza or Egypt was in early 2017, before he headed the organisation’s political bureau.

Hamas, especially the political bureau, has close ties with Qatar, Turkey and Iran, which Egypt alleges are intervening in Egyptian issues.

The Hamas political bureau and Qatar were among the few Arab representatives not to condemn Turkey’s recent military incursion into northern Syria. Hamas issued a statement saying it understands Turkey’s reason for conducting the mission and need to protect its territory from Kurds on its borders.

However, Hamas leaders in Gaza, including Yahya Sinwar, Hamas’s president in Gaza, and his deputy Khalil al-Hayya are not as close with Doha and Ankara, this is supported by the fact that media rarely reported connections or visits between them and Qatari or Turkish officials.

However, it seems the crisis isn’t limited to visits to Turkey or Qatar. If that is the case, Egyptian authorities were expected to allow Haniyeh to enter Egypt and later prevent him from going to Ankara or Doha, as happened several times in the past three years, Abou Marzouk said.

Mohamed Bahaa al-Din, a political science professor at Suez University, said Egypt is more welcoming of Hamas’s local leaders, such as Sinwar or Hayaa, than members of its political bureau. While “Hayya is a member of the political bureau, I believe he is met in Cairo as a local leader, the vice-president of Hamas in Gaza,” he said.

Bahaa al-Din said Hamas’s presidency of Gaza is distinct from its general political bureau. The former is seen by Egypt as an extension of the resistance movement to Israel aimed at liberating Gaza that emerged before 2005 when it had Egyptian support.

“After liberating Gaza, the movement has been trying to transform into a political party under the leadership of the political bureau, close to Qatar, Turkey and Muslim Brotherhood, especially after the death of historic resistance leaders like Ahmed Yassin and Abdel Aziz al-Rantisi,” Bahaa al-Din said.

“Since the transformation, relations between Egypt and Hamas have been marked by tensions because Egypt has never recognised an armed movement as a political party,” he added.

Contrary to the situations in Qatar and Turkey, where Hamas leaders and representatives meet with foreign ministers and even Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Egyptian governmental officials have not met with or called Hamas leaders and delegations, whose meetings in Cairo are  limited to the Egyptian intelligence services, which may reflect that Egypt refused to recognise Hamas as a political party and most likely does not lend credence to its political bureau.

Meetings with Hamas delegations and leaders are handled by Egyptian intelligence, not government or Foreign Ministry representatives.

Muhammed Mukhtar, a researcher who specialises in Islamist movements such as Hamas, said Egypt also distances itself from Hamas’s political bureau because “Haniyeh is opinionated concerning his decisions leading to tensions with the Egyptian side, as well as local presidency of Hamas in Gaza, to an extent that many observers are warning from a split among Hamas leaders.”

There have been reports that the two wings of Hamas have been at odds. In April 2018, Israel Hayom newspaper reported that Sinwar was upset that Haniyeh refused an offer from Egypt’s intelligence service to mediate with Israel about the Gaza siege without first consulting Hamas’s local presidency.

Because of Egyptian diplomacy the offer, which was rejected by Hamas, would have granted Gaza more regular opening of Rafah crossing and releasing dozens of Palestinians imprisoned in Israel in return for halting “Great Marches of Return” protests of Gazans organised by Hamas against the siege on Israeli borders, returning the bodies of Israeli soldiers in Hamas custody and providing information about Israeli civilians detained there.

Egypt is unlikely to welcome further divisions within Hamas, however, that could lead to a new armed faction that would complicate strained reconciliation negotiations with Fatah and peace negotiations with Israel that are backed by Cairo.