Egypt-Hamas showdown coming

Friday 11/03/2016
Egyptian policemen stand guard, last June, after a bomb attack that targeted Egypt’s prosecutor general in the Heliopolis district of Cairo.

Cairo - Egypt’s declaration that Palestinian faction Hamas and the Muslim Brother­hood had assassinated its prosecutor-general Hish­am Barakat will signal further dete­rioration in ties between Cairo and the two groups, a fiercer crackdown by Egypt on the Muslim Brother­hood and probably deeper shifts in regional loyalties, experts say.
Relations between Egypt and Ha­mas, an ideological offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood, dramatically deteriorated after the Egyptian Army ousted president Muhammad Morsi, a leading member of the Muslim Brotherhood, in July 2013.
Egypt accused Hamas, which rules the Gaza Strip, of meddling in its affairs and fomenting militancy in the Sinai peninsula.
Hamas accused Egypt of tighten­ing the blockade around Gaza and closing the Rafah crossing, Gaza’s only functioning gate into the out­side world on the Egyptian border.
However, the Egyptian an­nouncement that Hamas trained the Muslim Brotherhood operatives who assassinated Barakat will fur­ther damage relations between the Palestinian movement and the Arab country.
“Egypt’s announcement of Ha­mas’ responsibility signals its re­solve to punish this faction,” said Taha al-Khattib, a Palestinian ana­lyst in Cairo. “Hamas will pay dear­ly for this.”
Barakat was the most senior of­ficial killed in the current series of attacks in Egypt. His motorcade was attacked on June 29th, 2015, by a booby-trapped car as he left his home in eastern Cairo.
Soon after the attack, Egypt ac­cused Hamas and the Brotherhood of being behind it.
Egyptian Interior Minister Magdy Abdel Ghaffar on March 6th showed footage of six Brotherhood opera­tives who said they received train­ing in Gaza before the attack on Barakat.
This is the first evidence pre­sented of Hamas’s direct involve­ment in Egypt’s unrest. Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri said his movement had nothing to do with the incident and the Brotherhood asked authorities to search for the real culprits.
In Egypt, however, almost eve­rybody says Hamas influence is al­ready felt in Sinai, where a militant movement called the Sinai State pledged allegiance to the Islamic State in late 2014 and continues to fight the Egyptian Army.
Hours before Abdel Ghaffar’s announcement, three Egyptians — two soldiers and an aid worker — were killed in an attack reportedly staged by the Sinai State. According to unconfirmed reports, Qassam Brigades militants, explosives and arms arrived from Hamas just days before the attack.
“Hamas must be punished and very mercilessly at that for the role it plays in Sinai,” said Samir Ghat­tas, the head of local think-tank Middle East Studies Centre and a member of the Egyptian parlia­ment.
Egypt had started its attempt to deal with Hamas long before the March 6th announcement. The Egyptian Army demolished more than 1,000 tunnels between Gaza and Sinai. The tunnels were used to smuggle Egyptian commodities into Gaza and Gazan arms, mili­tants and explosives into Egypt.
The tunnels were a lifeline for the Palestinian coastal territory, which has been suffering an all-out Israeli blockade since 2007. They also helped Hamas generate millions of dollars in tunnel activity taxes.
Only a handful of tunnels contin­ue to be functional, military experts said.
It is not clear which course Egypt will follow to punish Hamas for its involvement in Barakat’s assassina­tion. Cairo has been cracking down on the Muslim Brotherhood for al­most three years, banning it and putting many of its leaders in jail.
Retaliatory measures against Hamas will, experts say, make the faction move closer to Turkey and Qatar, opponents of the Egyptian regime that are in negotiations with Israel to gain more presence in Gaza.
Ghattas said the Egyptian govern­ment should lead a regional drive to label Hamas as a “terrorist” group, such as Saudi Arabia recently did with the Lebanese movement Hez­bollah.
Other experts, including political analyst Saad al-Zant, rule out the possibility of an Egyptian military action against Hamas in Gaza. He, however, said Hamas must be made to realise that it can be causing its own demise if it attempts to test Egypt’s security or dig tunnels.
“This movement has been in­volved in harming Egypt’s national security for a long time already,” Zant said. “I think this is time Egypt showed zero tolerance to all this by making it clear to Hamas — by both word and deed — that it will pay a very heavy price if it thinks of destabilising Egypt.”