Egypt and Hamas: The honeymoon that wasn't

Tensions were on display during the Israel-Gaza fighting last week, when Egypt’s truce efforts repeatedly frustrated.

Haniyeh waves to supporters after Friday speech in Cairo 390 (photo credit: REUTERS/Mohamed Abd El Ghany)
Haniyeh waves to supporters after Friday speech in Cairo 390
(photo credit: REUTERS/Mohamed Abd El Ghany)
The high hopes Gaza’s Hamas leaders had in the Egyptian revolution and the ouster of their old nemesis, Hosni Mubarak, have been swallowed up by growing acrimony and traditional distrust.
Tensions were on display during the fighting between Israel and Gaza-based militant groups last week, when Egypt’s efforts to broker a truce were subject to repeated delays and violations. The ceasefire gradually went into affect, and now the two sides are back to sniping over who is responsible for the fuel shortage in Gaza that has been behind weeks of brownouts and blackouts.
Over the weekend, Yusef Rizka, adviser to Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh, whose Hamas movement has ruled the Mediterranean enclave since seizing power in 2007, charged that the leadership in Egypt is using the fuel crisis for “political extortion.” But Cairo charges that Gaza smugglers are buying subsidized gasoline in Egypt and reselling it at a profit at home.
The latest bickering comes against a background of disappointment on the part of the two neighbors.
Cairo accuses Hamas of taking advantage of the lawlessness in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula by turning a blind eye to a flood of 1,300 stolen cars being smuggled into Gaza and allowing drugs grown there to be shipped out. They accuse the Islamic group of being behind the circulation of some $40 million of counterfeit US currency in Egypt.
A senior Hamas security source sheepishly admitted that purloined vehicles had made there way to Gaza, but denied it was on a large scale. “It’s only 15 cars, not 1,300,” he told The Media Line on condition of anonymity.
But Egyptian accusations go deeper. Officials in Cairo say Hamas and other militant groups backed by Iran have turned Sinai into a staging ground for attacks on Israel. In fact, Israel says it has repeatedly foiled Sinai operations directed from Gaza. Its air force killed Zuhir Al-Qaisi, head of the Popular Resistance Committee in a targeted assassination March 9, saying he was planning an attack from Sinai.
Cairo has been unhappy that Qatar, the distant, tiny but hugely wealthy Gulf emirate, supplanted it as mediator in the latest attempt to negotiate a reconciliation agreement between Hamas and its rival Fatah movement, which retains control of the West Bank. The talks have failed so far, but Qatar’s involvement was a blow to Egyptian prestige.
Hamas also has it grievances. Expectations that the interim military government that replaced Mubarak would open the border between Gaza and Egypt and undermine Israel’s blockade have been disappointed; months after it was opened, traffic through the sole crossing point -- Rafah Terminal -- is severely restricted.
Moreover, Hamas officials themselves have been subject to delays traveling in and out of Gaza through Egypt, their only route to the outside world. Over the past few weeks, dozens of Hamas field commanders were blocked from crossing through the terminal. Last month, Atef Edwan, a Hamas lawmaker, former minister and official in charge of refugees, was denied permission to visit Egypt when he landed at Cairo Airport and was told that he would be taken directly to Rafah, Hamas sources in Gaza told The Media Line.
Even Haniyeh has been subject to insulting treatment, the security sources said. When Haniyeh left Gaza for a tour of the Gulf (including Iran, despite Cairo’s disapproval) his crossing at Rafah was delayed for two hours, allegedly for technical reasons, and his meeting with Egyptian Prime Minister Kamal Al-Janzouri was canceled.
It wasn’t suppose be this way after Mubarak was toppled. But less has changed in Egypt in the following 13 months than Hamas had expected. Major policy decisions have been frozen while the country undergoes a gradual transition to democratic rule. Meanwhile, the cadre of generals that took over from Mubarak runs the country.
Military Intelligence continues to manage the bilateral relationship, employing the same personnel and observing the same policies it did when Mubarak was still ruling.
“There are three sources of power in Egypt these days -- the ruling military council, which is anti-Hamas; the parliament, which is dominated by pro-Hamas lawmakers; and the youth movement, which right now remains undecided on its attitude toward Hamas,” Palestinian analyst Hani Masri told The Media Line.
Egypt’s attitude toward the Gaza Strip is influenced by a host of external factor, not the least its support for Mahmoud Abbas, who leads the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank and is a rival claimant with Hamas for Palestinian leadership. Egypt is also dependent on US military aid and is careful not to upset Washington by getting to close to the Muslim militant movement, which is considered by the US as a terrorist organization.
But Masri said that at the top of Cairo’s calculations is the desire to ensure Gaza remains Israel’s headache, not Egypt’s. On the whole, Gazans enjoy greater freedom of movement today compared to the Mubarak era, he said, “but Hamas is ambitious to get more freedom.”
The movement has not given up hope on Egypt and is now counting on the Muslim Brotherhood-dominated parliament to emerge as the dominant force in Egypt after presidential elections, which are likely to put either an Islamist or other Hamas-friendly personality into Egypt’s highest office. Hamas itself is an offshoot of the Brotherhood, although their ideologies differ in many respects.
“Hamas is waiting for the presidential elections in May, and hoping that a government led by the Muslim Brotherhood will be formulated,” Masri said.
If not, analysts warn, Hamas has ways of striking back at Egypt, if it feels it is not getting the cooperation it expects. Egypt’s authority in Sinai has been weakened by the revolution and Hamas could easily use the region to embarrass Cairo by striking at Israel from Egyptian territory or causing direct damage to Egypt and its economy by encouraging local terror attacks.