31 August 2012
The first official meeting between Egyptian President Mohammed Mursi and Hamas historic leader Khaled Mashal in July was hailed by both parties as the prelude to a "new era." Only a week later, at the end of July, Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh also met with the newly elected Egyptian President, reinforcing the idea that Hamas' status is on the rise in post-revolutionary Egypt.
In Israel, the response to the growing rapprochement between Egypt and Hamas has been far from enthusiastic. The concern is that the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood will embolden and further "radicalize" the Palestinian group. There is also anxiety over the potential opening of the borders with Gaza.
Since the fall of Mubarak, relations between Hamas and Egypt have improved. The Palestinian group was not sorry to see Mubarak go. The old regime had openly sided with Hamas' political foe, Fatah, while enforcing Israel's blockade of the Gaza Strip. Now, the rapprochement between Egypt and Hamas represents an important improvement of Hamas' political and security environment.
Even so, the claim that the Arab Spring has "emboldened" Hamas does not hold up to scrutiny. It is also far from clear that the rising influence of the Muslim Brotherhood will "radicalize" the Palestinian organization. Rather, the Arab Spring has led Hamas to undergo a number of significant changes at the ideological, political, and strategic level.
Ideologically, Hamas has been rethinking its branding strategy to align itself with the changes produced by the Arab Spring. The past year has seen the rise of a new discourse centered on socio-political rights and freedoms, civil society, and large-scale use of strategic non-violent struggle. It has also seen the rise of non-violent groups like the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt.
Hamas has responded to these trends by emphasizing its interest in pursuing non-violent struggle in parallel with armed "resistance." What's more, the Palestinian organization has also gone back to its roots, by stressing its own links with the Brotherhood, both in Egypt and internationally.
Politically, the changes of spurred by the Arab Spring pushed forward the issue of Palestinian reconciliation. Last year, Hamas very much feared that the regional turmoil might extend to the Gaza Strip, fueled by the domestic discontent over the long-standing rift between Fatah and Hamas. The strong desire (shared by both Fatah and Hamas) to diffuse a potential "demonstration effect" of the Arab Spring on Palestine pushed both parties to sign the May 2011 "reconciliation deal" and to commit (at least on paper) to move beyond divisions and polarizations.
Most importantly, the spreading of the Arab revolutions to Syria has impacted Hamas at the strategic level. In the past, the Assad regime had been an important ally of the Palestinian organization, with Damascus housing the headquarters of the group's political bureau.
When the popular protests first broke out in Syria, Hamas faced a dilemma. The group had both a strong political connection with Assad, but also sectarian and religious ties to the Sunni majority protesting against the Alawite-dominated regime.
As such, openly siding with the Syrian regime, the way Hezbollah or Iran did, was not really an option for Hamas. This explains the initial reluctance displayed by Hamas leaders to condemn the Syrian regime and take the side of the protesters, like the group had immediately done in the cases of Tunisia and Egypt.
However, as the crisis escalated, Hamas' policy of non-interference started to crumble. Firstly, both Assad and his main regional ally, Iran, soon began to feel displeased by Hamas' lack of direct support for the regime. Secondly, Hamas became increasingly more uncomfortable with being associated with the brutal Syrian regime. In turn, this led the group to gradually distance itself from Damascus, first by decreasing its presence in the Syrian capital, and then by quietly vacating the premises.
The relocation of the political bureau from Syria has indeed been one of the most important consequences of the Arab Spring for Hamas. It represents a window of opportunity for the Palestinian group to redefine its regional alliances and to move away from the "Axis of Resistance."
The strengthening of the group's relations with Egypt and the Muslim Brotherhood must be understood in light of the relocation away from Damascus. It is a sign that the group is repositioning itself. But will this shift "embolden" Hamas and encourage the group to push forward its maximalist objectives? An analysis of the new relations between the Brotherhood and Hamas suggests the opposite.
So far, despite the ideological support that the Muslim Brotherhood has for Hamas' "resistance" against Israel, the need to keep stability within Egypt and to preserve the existing support of the United States constitute a powerful incentive to diffuse any escalation of tensions between Hamas and the Israeli government.
Egypt has also a national security interest in curbing illegal activities in the Sinai and in bringing to a halt weapons smuggling and terrorism. To do so, Egypt needs to engage in a serious dialogue with Hamas on this topic and to demand that all Palestinian groups cease supporting radical cells operating within Egyptian territory.
So far, Hamas has cooperated with Egypt in the aftermath of the recent Sinai attacks, offering to help secure the border and to crack down on smuggling tunnels, in exchange for relaxing the border with Gaza. In the future, Egypt can play a role in getting Hamas to crack down harder on local "jihadist" cells.
What's more, so far the Muslim Brotherhood has used its influence on Hamas to pressure the Gaza-based Islamist organization to work towards reconciliation with Fatah. Mursi reiterated this commitment in his last meeting with Mashal, which was preceded by a similar exchange with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.
So far, the pressure on Hamas to end the rift with Fatah has not been overwhelming, but in the next months the newly elected Egyptian President may step up his role as a mediator. In turn, to obtain this result, he will have to strive to be seen more as a neutral mediator between the two parties, somewhat recalibrating the Brotherhood's support of Hamas.
Finally, the Brotherhood has not seemed interested in adding fuel to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict: the group has repeatedly declared to agree with Hamas' de facto acceptance of coexistence of Israel "provided that this state within the '67 borders is completely sovereign in air and in sea and in land." Although this stance does not necessarily reflect a change of heart by the group, it nevertheless points to fact that the Brotherhood is showing no intention to further "radicalize" Hamas.
Finally, when it comes to the issue of Gaza, even in the aftermath of the collapse of the Mubarak regime, Egypt has continued—beyond its rhetoric—to hold a pretty tight grip on Gaza. Mursi had taken the first steps towards changing this policy, for example by increasing fuel supplies and relaxing the restrictions to enter Egypt from Gaza, but the process has been stalled following the recent terror attacks in Sinai.
All in all, although the Egyptian-Hamas rapprochement does strengthen the Palestinian group and its status, this development—together with the drifting away of Hamas from the Syrian-Iranian Axis—could be an incentive for the group to show more flexibility and moderation, rather than further radicalization.
Benedetta Berti is a Research Associate at the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) at Tel Aviv University (TAU), a lecturer at TAU, and a member of the Atlantic Council’s Young Atlanticist Working Group. She is the author of Hamas and Hezbollah: A Comparative Study (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2012).