Friend or Foe? Egypt Sizes Up Hamas
Published Monday, March 18, 2013
An Egyptian debate is underway as to whether Hamas is a boon or threat for a secure Egypt.
A recent report published by Egyptian weekly magazine al-Ahram al-Arabi has accused three leaders from Hamas’ military wing of masterminding the killing of Egyptian soldiers in Rafah in August 2012. While the allegations continue to reverberate in the Egyptian street, Egyptian officials have kept mum.
For instance, the Egyptian army, the direct target of the Rafah attack, has yet to endorse the magazine’s account even though al-Ahram al-Arabi claims its source is a member of the Egyptian General Intelligence.
Sources close to the Egyptian presidency told Al-Akhbar that the state has not decided whether to go public with an official position, but that it is trying to verify the authenticity of the allegations.
Hamas leader Mousa Abu Marzouq, who is currently in Cairo, told Al-Akhbar that his group has contacted Egyptian intelligence to ascertain whether it indeed blames Hamas for the soldiers’ slaying. According to Abu Marzouq, the agency said the allegations were “baseless and fabricated.”
Hamas and Egyptian National Security
Al-Ahram al-Arabi’s allegations have rekindled a debate over whether Hamas constitutes a threat to Egyptian – and Arab – national security. Hossam Tammam, the late Egyptian expert on Islamist movements, had extensively analyzed the question, which he reckoned was the result of “a combination of misconceptions about the group and bad faith against it.”
Tammam believed that Hamas had a unique status within the Islamist movement. For instance, the history of the relationship between Hamas and its parent organization, the Muslim Brotherhood, reveals that the Palestinian chapter has been free to make its decisions independently.
One cause for Hamas’ independence is its military wing, the Izzedin al-Qassam Brigades, which was established to fight the occupation of Palestine. Indeed, it is an accepted fact that the Muslim Brotherhood is generally committed to nonviolent modes of action.
Another particular feature that sets Hamas apart from other Islamist groups is its lack of advocacy of an internationalist Islamist view. Hamas has made clear the distinction between people of the Jewish faith around the world and Zionists, refraining from conducting operations outside Palestine.
Likewise, Hamas steered clear of inter-Arab conflicts. Its proximity to the Syrian-Iranian axis was more the result of the hostility of the Egyptian-Jordanian axis than of preference.
Based on his assessment of the group’s origins and tactics, Tammam called for the assimilation of Hamas into Egyptian and Arab security structures as a resistance movement. He also recommended that the group be dealt with through political rather than security channels; Hamas was an added value, not a threat, said Tammam.
Imad al-Sous, expert on Hamas at the Free University of Berlin, said that after Mursi took office, rapprochement between Hamas and Egypt followed. At the time, the Israeli press expressed concern over this development, as restrictions once imposed by the Mubarak regime had now become political opportunities for Hamas.
Therefore, Sous argued, diplomatic and political engagement benefits Hamas, while military incidents such as those in Rafah only serve to invite further restrictions on Hamas and the Gaza Strip. Hamas was the party most impacted by the attack, he argued, stressing that the incident had nothing to do with the closure of the tunnels, something that would not happen until later.
Turning to the relationship between the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas, Sous claimed that “were it not for the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, Hamas would have fallen within a year from the start of Mubarak’s siege.”
For this reason, he surmised, Hamas would have no interest in embarrassing Egypt, as “each side wants the other to succeed.” But Sous said the involvement of Palestinian elements should not be ruled out.
The Egyptian Street and Hamas’ Image
Despite official denials of involvement by Hamas, it is obvious that there has been a change in the attitude of many ordinary Egyptians vis-à-vis the group.
Media expert Yasser Abdul-Aziz told Al-Akhbar about this recent change. He said, “The conduct of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt has caused them strategic losses, not only at the level of the local chapter, but also at the level of political Islam in the region and the world.”
“Over the past three decades,” said Abdul-Aziz, “Hamas was able to cultivate a positive image among the Egyptian public, despite great hostility by the Mubarak regime.”
However, according to Abdul-Aziz, “The allegations made against Hamas during the January revolution, especially those related to the incident in Rafah, have started to take their toll on Hamas’ image, putting the movement constantly on the defensive.”
Imad Sous, meanwhile, said that there are several reasons behind the shift in Egyptian perceptions of Hamas. While the services once offered by the Brotherhood and Hamas when they were in the opposition were met with gratitude, the groups are now in office. This gives them a new responsibility of maintaining order and providing services. Given the scarcity of resources, the tables have turned.
This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.