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On 13 May 2011, just four months after mass protests had forced Hosni Mubarak out of power, Egyptian protesters from different political orientations gathered in Tahrir to mark the Nakba day.
Tens of thousands of young protesters gathered: Nasserists from the Al Karama party, the April 6 Youth Movement, the Youth in Support of Al Baradei, and young members of the Muslim Brotherhood. Their message was clear: complete solidarity with the Palestinians, a united stand against the Israeli violence meted out to civilians in Gaza and the West Bank, and the Zionist ideology. The groups – who also united under the Revolutionary Youth Coalition – released a statement saying: “We affirm our complete support for the right of the Palestinian Arab people and their right to use whatever means of resistance to achieve their rights”.
But more than two years later, another wave of protests, followed by a military takeover, removed Mohamed Morsi from power and the cards were flipped. The removal of the Muslim Brotherhood from the highest echelons of state power hindered relations between Egypt and Hamas.
Hamas is a very valuable card when it comes to Egyptian diplomacy and if Qatar funds Hamas, it is with Israeli approval because jihadists need to be contained and this also comes through sustaining the administration of Hamas.
The new government led by Adly Mansour, with Abdelfattah al-Sisi as minister of defense, mistrusted Hamas and claimed the movement was a proxy of the Muslim Brotherhood. They claimed that the Palestinian islamists, who control the dense Gaza strip today, smuggled weapons to the Brotherhood and were involved in terrorist attacks in Sinai; reports that were emphasised by Egyptian talkshows and newspapers.
This has simultaneously led to a campaign of demonisation against Palestinians and the halting of contacts between the Egyptian General Intelligence and Hamas, that has been in power since 2007. This led to the closure of the Rafah borders, the only route for smuggled goods and medical aid to go in. The Egyptian military also destroyed at least 80% of tunnels linking the two territories, to establish stricter controls over the borders.
Egypt a reluctant mediator
When the 2014 war broke out between Israel and Hamas – a 50 day conflict where more than 1460 Palestinian civilians were killed by Israeli fighter jets and six civilians were killed on the Israeli side – Egypt’s role as a mediator could hardly be felt at the time.
“Egypt was less eager for a ceasefire in 2014. Egypt & other Gulf Arab states were more interested in seeing a death blow landed on Hamas by Israel. At this particular juncture they put all the blame on Hamas. The Egyptians were in an ideological frame of mind, that saw this as part of their broader struggle against the Muslim Brotherhood, just like Egypt’s position in Libya, which was very much anti-islamist and anti-Muslim Brotherhood. This was Egypt’s regional foreign policy in 2014”, explains Michael Wahid Hanna, Director of the U.S. program at the International Crisis Group.
Indeed, after the ouster of President Mohamed Morsi by Egypt’s military in 2013, the Muslim Brotherhood was designated by the state as a terrorist organisation. It did not take long for Hamas to join the list, with an Egyptian court adding the Palestinian group, accusing it of supporting an insurgency in Northern Sinai.
“In North Sinai, Hamas is an adversary, certainly not a cooperative partner to Egypt. It has proven to be allied with local Sinai terrorist groups and has been accused of providing training and logistical support. And Hamas members in Sinai have been arrested at various occasions,” sayss Mohamed El Dahshan, managing director at OXCON.
Things are different today.
“There has been a pragmatic turn within the Egyptian government on this issue, they have rebuilt their ties with Hamas through the General Intelligence Services because they have set aside the kind of eradicationist notions that they had in the immediate aftermath of the coup, where the security apparatus thought that they could not only repress the brotherhood but crush it and destroy the organisation once and for all. They have come to see the limitations of that approach, which is not helpful to Egypt’s efforts to manage its border with Gaza. National security interests clearly came to outweigh ideological imperatives”, explains Michael Wahid Hanna.
This being said, in Hamas’s latest charter published on May 1st 2017 the movement dropped its attachment to the Muslim Brotherhood, an important update knowing that their 1988 charter clearly linked the movement to the Brotherhood. “This was seen as an important gesture by Egyptian authorities but it doesn’t really change Hamas’ worldview or orientation”, notes Michael Wahid Hanna.
Nevertheless, Egypt’s position in today’s conflict is extremely different. The most populous Arab state has in effect opened its Rafah borders with Gaza since the beginning of the conflict providing medical supplies and aid to Gaza, in addition to a $500m pledge to help rebuild Gaza, aid usually financed by Gulf states, and unheard of in today’s conflict.
When asked by a BBC reporter why Egypt wasn’t this involved during the 2014 war, Egyptian minister of foreign affairs, Sameh Shoukry, said the country was always at the heart of mediation and negotiations between Israel and Palestine, adding that the generous pledge is subject to Egyptian resources in financing Gaza.
The Egyptian state guided by the General Intelligence Services in charge of the Hamas portfolio (not the ministry of foreign Affairs), has shown a great deal of pragmatism despite its local crackdown on the Brotherhood. “Egypt does not want to find itself on the wrong side of public opinion and is using its unique position, as the main regional broker, to leverage its position on other dossiers of interest to it,” says Mohamed El Dahshan, who is also a former UN consultant in Palestine.
The war in Northern-Sinai
To mention Northern Sinai, when covering Hamas-Egypt relations, is inevitable. Egypt has been engaged in a full scale war against Islamist jihadi groups like Ansar Bait Al Maqdis in Northern Sinai since 2013. “Hamas is a fairly disciplined organisation – one that can be engaged in diplomatic discussions for example – and the group itself is not aiding and abetting Jihadi fighters in North Sinai, but other factions are” says Hanna.
Wassim Nasr, a journalist at France 24, who has been monitoring Jihadi groups for over 10 years, explains that Egypt needs Hamas to contain the most virulent fringes in Gaza, like Jaish al Islam a few years back or Jaich al-Umma today, in order to prevent spillovers into Sinaï and a loss of control in Gaza itself.
“The militants in Sinai combatting Egyptian troops are bedouins opposed to the state of Egypt and Palestinian jihadists deceived by Hamas,” says Nasr, who authored the book Islamic State: “Etat Islamique, le fait accompli. “Regarding Gaza, Egypt forgets who is attached to Muslim Brotherhood and who is not when it comes to geopolitics and border security,”says Nasr.
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Israel has always had an obvious interest in Egypt’s campaign in Sinai, since jihadists have attacked countless targets across the border and represent a clear threat to Israeli national interest. The Jewish state has even allowed the introduction of Egyptian troops of so called ‘prohibited’ regions in Sinai, which were formerly limited by the 1979 treaty between Egypt and Israel, which limits the former country’s deployments of weapons and soldiers in the peninsula.
Yet Hamas’s destruction is no longer a realistic or pragmatic policy. “Hamas is a very valuable card when it comes to Egyptian diplomacy and if Qatar funds Hamas, it is with Israeli approval because jihadists need to be contained and this also comes through sustaining the administration of Hamas,” says Nasr, underlining that Hamas exercises power and puts other jihadis groups in the Palestinian enclave under huge pressure.
“If we take the example of Turkey’s involvement in the Syrian conflict, they choose to deal with Hay’at Tahrir al Cham, who in turn contains the most radical elements in Idlib. The same goes to Egypt who choose to communicate with Hamas – to contain other jihadi groups – and over whom they have political leverage,” says Nasr.
Despite their complex relationship, it is both Egypt and Hamas that came out as winners of this conflict. Egypt, who was at the heart of the truce between Hamas and Israel, has regained its position as a regional power and its pertinence in the Palestinian/Israeli conflict. Hamas has on the other hand demonstrated that it is the sole competent organisation, with Mahmoud Abbas’s Palestine Liberation Organisation termed as ineffective and powerless.
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