Egypt watches cautiously as Hamas edges closer towards regional rivals
CAIRO- The Egyptian government watched intently as Hamas Chairman Ismail Haniyeh recently met with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani.
The meetings were part of an extended foreign tour by Haniyeh, his first since taking over the Hamas politburo in May 2017.
In a meeting December 14 in Istanbul with Erdogan, Haniyeh discussed humanitarian conditions in the Gaza Strip, Jerusalem, al-Aqsa Mosque, Turkish support for the Palestinians and efforts Hamas makes towards Palestinian elections, Hamas said in a statement.
Haniyeh and his delegation discussed the same issues with Sheikh Tamim in Doha two days later.
There was concern in Egypt that a coming together of Hamas and two of Egypt’s most avowed regional rivals would have negative implications for Egyptian national security and regional standing.
Egypt has been trying to contain Hamas for a long time, having convinced the movement — an ideological offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamist movement designated “terrorist” by Cairo, to turn from a direct enemy to a shy collaborator.
Many extremists who fight the Egyptian Army in Sinai entered Egypt from Gaza through smuggling tunnels operated by Hamas.
“There has been a direct link between Gaza and terrorist activity in Sinai,” said Egyptian security expert Gamal Eddine Mazloum. “Now, the Gaza-ruling faction comes together with two countries that have always worked to undermine Egypt both internally and externally.”
Cairo contained Hamas by offering aid, including fuel for Gaza’s electricity plants, and mediating between the Palestinian movement and Israel. Egypt recently worked on a possible long-term truce between Gaza and Tel Aviv.
Haniyeh travelled to Istanbul via Cairo, the only transit point to the outside world for Hamas leaders because of the blockade imposed on the enclave by Israel since 2007.
Hamas’s turn to Egypt’s regional rivals would open the door for many scenarios — all of them bad for Cairo, analysts said.
By shifting loyalties, Hamas gives Qatar and Turkey leverage over Gaza. Egypt partly owes its regional importance to its ability to influence Palestinians in Gaza and the occupied West Bank.
“The clear thing is that Egypt could not fully contain Hamas,” said Hazem Abu Shanab, a member of the Revolutionary Council of the occupied West Bank-ruling Fatah Movement. “It needs to be on the alert as Hamas gets close to Turkey and other countries with the same policy.”
Hamas is more ideologically in line with Turkey and Qatar, both staunch sponsors of political Islam and the Muslim Brotherhood.
In April 2017, Hamas issued a political document in which it declared disengagement from the Muslim Brotherhood. That allowed for close security cooperation between Cairo and Gaza, which helped Egypt in its fight against ISIS in Sinai. It also helped Cairo play a greater role in unifying Gaza’s factions in preparation for inter-Palestinian reconciliation.
The fear in Cairo is that Hamas drifting away from Cairo and towards Istanbul and Doha, which could entice Hamas to play a negative role in Sinai security and perhaps cause an ISIS revival and weaken Egyptian counterterrorism efforts.
A deterioration of the security situation in Sinai, analysts said, would serve Turkey and Qatar on several counts. The shift would keep Egypt busy and give Turkey and Qatar an opportunity to expand their influence in Libya.
Turkey signed a security document with Libya’s Islamist-leaning Government of National Accord, which controls Tripoli, along with another document defining maritime borders. The security document, Erdogan said, gives Turkey the right to send troops to Libya if the Tripoli government requests.
On December 17, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi said Libya is a national security issue for Egypt and that countries that think they can control the North African country are mistaken.
Sisi had met with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in Sharm el-Sheikh two days earlier when he called for building trust between Palestinian factions within an integrated pursuit and away from temporary solutions, the Egyptian presidency said in a statement.
Egypt is a long-time sponsor of the Palestinian issue but Turkey’s and Qatar’s scrambling for influence in the Palestinian territories would complicate matters and stoke tensions among the Palestinians.
“There is a lot of regional jostling over influence in the Palestinian territories,” said Nadia Helmy, a professor of political science at Beni Suef University in Egypt. “Each of the countries jockeying in this regard works to serve its own interests, not those of the Palestinians.”