Egypt, Hamas and Palestine
Since making public its General Policies and Principles document last May, Hamas has continued with the changes regarding the occupation forces and the Muslim Brotherhood.
The announced moves are very subdued and theoretical for the moment. Hamas’s actions were not dictated by ideological considerations alone. Its rapprochement with Egypt, for example, was the result of Gaza’s geographical constraints and the realisation inside Hamas that the organisation cannot escape its confinement without Cairo’s help.
Hamas needed a way out and Fatah’s Mohammed Dahlan and his colleagues provided Hamas with the needed connection with the outside world, especially with Cairo and Abu Dhabi.
Hamas is looking for breathing space that cannot be provided by its exclusive relations with Doha, Ankara and Tehran. In this respect, the change in Hamas’s strategic choices reflects the predicament of political Islam. The various branch organisations are veering from the official discourse of the mother organisation, which sounds outdated.
In its dealings with Hamas, Cairo is fully aware that it is working with the Palestinian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood. Those in charge of the Hamas file in Cairo could not care less about the policy changes announced by Hamas. They might mean nothing. This is why Egyptian relations with Hamas are being handled by the Egyptian intelligence services.
The same services are handling Egypt’s involvement in the reconciliation efforts between Hamas and Fatah. Cairo has chosen a security-based approach to anything involving Hamas and has imposed its will on the organisation. Egypt cannot indeed afford to be lax when it comes to a potential threat to its national security from its Sinai neighbour.
Hamas has thus revised its strategic choices and decided to go back to its original position within the Palestinian front. It no longer claims exclusive control of Gaza and has dismantled its government to give way to the National Palestinian Authority. Hamas wouldn’t have chosen this path were it not for the painful messages from Cairo during the last few years. The punishment measures decided by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas were severe enough to drive both Hamas and the Palestinian Authority to seek Cairo’s help in ending Gaza’s tragedy.
Hamas must have been at the end of its rope; otherwise, it would not have accepted to meet with Dahlan and his companions. Dahlan’s connections in the region were in contradiction, if not in conflict, with Hamas’s connections. Hamas, however, was smart enough to accept political dealings based on interests and only interests, not ideology.
The funny thing though is that Hamas’s backing down does not represent a victory for the Palestinian Authority and Abbas. Rather, it is a clear victory for Egypt. When Abbas hurried to meet with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, he was more concerned about Dahlan’s increasing popularity in Gaza than about Palestinian reconciliation.
If these new changes in the Palestinian context come to pass, they would certainly pull the carpet from under certain countries in the region that have used support for the Palestinian cause as a front for other agendas far removed from the Palestinian cause.
Cairo, on the other hand, is more interested in reaping the benefits of the new situation than in punishing the loser. This is why it continues to deal with Hamas regardless of the latter’s eagerness to strike a coalition with Turkey or Iran.
If Egypt is the big winner in the new developments, Israel must be the biggest loser. The Israelis have based their entire Palestinian strategy on the assumption that there will not be a unified Palestinian front to deal with. They relished the idea that the Palestinian leadership is nothing more than a bunch of competing factions and ideologies. They easily sold to the rest of the world the idea of scrapping the two-state solution not because it was Israel’s wish but because there wasn’t a legitimate representative of the Palestinian people.
Some world capitals, especially Washington, are dealing with the division among the Palestinians as if it were permanent rather than a passing phenomenon. By normalising its relations with Hamas, Egypt’s aim was to close the void created by the rift in 2007 between Hamas and Fatah and push towards Palestinian unity. The objective is to breathe new life into Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, a feat that the whole world has failed to accomplish.
Still, Egypt’s accomplishment has a lot to do with conflicts in the region, such as the crisis with Qatar, Egypt’s open dispute with Ankara and Iran’s plans for the region.
Whether Egypt’s unification effort bears fruit is contingent on Hamas’s commitment to a purely Palestinian agenda and on the unexpected effects of the contradictory coalitions in the region.