Gaza’s HAMAS Enters Rocky Relationship with Egypt as it Tries to Reshape Alliances

Andrew McGregor

March 8, 2012

With geopolitical realities surrounding Gaza in flux due to the rise of Sunni political parties in the Middle East, the Syrian meltdown and the Iranian nuclear crisis, Ismail Haniyeh and the rest of the Hamas leadership are in the midst of a strategic reassessment of their alliance with Syria and Iran in favor of stronger ties to the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and elsewhere. However, Hamas’ historical ties to Shiite and Alawite political movements have led to sharp condemnation by Egypt’s Salafists.

While in Cairo on a recent visit, Haniyeh was roundly denounced in a February 24 statement issued by Egypt’s largest Salafist group, al-Da’wa al-Salafiya (The Salafist Call) that also condemned the Muslim Brotherhood for arranging his visit to Egypt in the first place:

We reject Haniyeh leading the prayer in Egypt’s largext Sunni mosque after he shook hands with the Shiites. Egypt is the country of the Sunni al-Azhar [the world’s preeminent Islamic university] and we do not accept a man who put his hand into the hand that kills Sunnis in Iraq and Syria… What is the difference between Jews, Hezbollah and Iran when they are all gathered in going against God’s word and wish to break down Islam? (Bikya Masr [Cairo], February 25).

During his visit to al-Azhar, Haniyeh declared that his movement’s resistance to Israel so long as that nation persisted in aggressive policies and the occupation of the Palestinian territories (Egyptian Gazette, February 25). The Hamas leader was speaking at an event held in response to recent attacks on Jerusalem’s al-Aqsa mosque by Israeli settlers under police protection (Ahram Online, February 24; al-Jazeera, February 19).

Egypt is in the middle of a somewhat chaotic reassessment of its relationship with the United States that will ultimately have a great deal to do with its approach to Hamas. Some Egyptian Islamists are considering revising Egypt’s peace treaty with Israel in the face of American pressure to release 18 American nationals accused of using foreign funds to instigate unrest in Egypt, allegedly under the guise of operating “civil society” NGOs. Washington is threatening to halt its annual contribution of $1.5 billion to Egypt ($1.3 billion of which is earmarked for military aid) unless the detainees are freed. Though the Egyptian leadership is no longer as pliable as it was under Mubarak and his cronies, they have yet to come up with a practical and viable replacement for these funds, which are generally regarded in Egypt as a payoff for maintaining peace with Israel.

Shaykh Muhammad Hassan

Salafist preacher Muhammad Hassan responded to the American “humiliation” of Egypt by introducing an initiative to replace the American aid with local donations: “If America wants to cut military aid, very well; Egypt isn’t less than Iran which is self-dependent when it comes to producing its own military equipment… The Egyptian people will not be broken anymore” (El Nahar TV, February 11; Ahram Online, February 15). Egyptian prime minister Kamal el-Ganzouri and the Grand Shaykh of al-Azhar, Ahmad al-Tayyeb, have both come out in support of Hassan’s initiative (Egypt State Information Service, February 17). However, Hassan’s projection of $1 million in private donations will leave a significant shortfall in making up the lost $1.5 billion in U.S. aid.

Hamas has met unexpected criticism elsewhere in Egypt. On February 22, Egypt’s former interior minister, Habib al-Adly, claimed in court that Hamas and Hezbollah had sent infiltrators into Egypt last year to foment political discontent and manipulate the Egyptian uprising against President Hosni Mubarak. Haniyeh responded to the charges immediately: “Hamas did not interfere in Egypt’s internal affairs, either before the revolution or after” (MENA, February 22; AFP, February 22).

Isma’il Hassan (center) at a Hamas Rally

Hamas has since come out against the Syrian regime as its leadership relocates to Cairo, Doha and Beirut. Hamas, based on the Palestinian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, found itself in the difficult position of being seen to back the Syrian regime’s violent repression of the Muslim Brotherhood in Syria. Hamas deputy leader Moussa Abu Marzouk rejected the Syrian approach to political dissent but noted the Hamas position would have a price: “Our position on Syria is that we are not with the regime in its security solution, and we respect the will of the people… The Iranians are not happy with our position on Syria, and when they are not happy, they don’t deal with you in the same old way” (BBC, February 28). Since 2007, Gaza has relied on Iranian financial aid for its continued existence in the face of Israeli military strikes and an economic blockade designed to force the democratically elected Hamas government from Hamas. With less Iranian funding available, Hamas has been forced to raise taxes on imported goods to raise the difference, despite wide public opposition to such measures. Hamas may seek to replace essential Iranian funding with financial assistance from the Sunni-dominated Gulf states.

Muhammad Mursi, the leader of the Muslim Brotherhood’s izb al-urriya wa al-‘Adala (Freedom and Justice Party) welcomed the relocation of the Hamas leadership: “Egypt is the custodial mother of the Arab nation and the Palestinian cause in particular since the late forties and it’s our duty to support the Palestinians” (Alresalah [Cairo], March 1).

After his return to Gaza, Haniyeh turned on Egypt, blaming it for crippling power shortages that have left many households and businesses with power for only six hours a day. The fuel shortage has led to the repeated shutdown of Gaza’s only power plant and the region’s 13 hospitals are running on generators with fuel provided on an emergency basis by the Red Cross (Guardian, March 1). The energy shortage has also led to a dramatic drop in available water as well as impacting the sewage treatment system. Gaza has suffered energy shortages since 2006, when Israel bombed the region’s lone energy plant.

Currently, Gaza receives much of its fuel through a network of smuggling tunnels. Egypt, however, wants Hamas to import its fuel through the Israeli-controlled Kerem Shalom border crossing, where the Palestinian Authority rather than Hamas imposes import taxes. Besides the loss of revenues, the fuel would cost more than smuggled fuel and its availability would be subject to the whims of Israeli border officials. There are also concerns that the fuel issue is Egypt’s way of pressuring Hamas to accept an Egyptian-sponsored unification with the Fatah-run Palestinian Authority in the West Bank (Reuters, March 2).

This article first appeared in the March 8, 2012 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor.