Egypt-Hamas showdown coming
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.”