Egypt or Iran? Hamas at a Crossroads
Irene Viti 28 January 2020

As Qasem Solemaini was killed in Baghdad last January 3rd, tension and fear for a possible escalation of the conflict arose in the whole Middle East. Besides the confrontation between the United States and Iran, the death of the Major General of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) also provoked, probably more surprisingly, fresh frictions between Egypt and Hamas.

Since December 2019, Ismail Haniya, Head of the Political Bureau of Hamas, has embarked on a regional tour, after having obtained a concession from Egypt to leave the Gaza Strip through the Rafah crossing, one of the two exit – and entry – points of Gaza, and the only one controlled by Egypt. Israel, on the other side, regulates the Erez crossing, located on the northern border of Gaza. However, it is far from possible for Gazans, and especially for Hamas members, to obtain permission to exit through Erez. Therefore, the only option to leave the besieged Gaza is to obtain an “exit visa” from Rafah, abiding by Egyptian requests and conditions.

At the beginning of December, Haniya was granted permission to travel to Cairo, where he attended several meetings to galvanize talks with Israel, mediated by Egypt, in an attempt to mitigate the economic and living conditions of the Strip. Following the meetings, the Head of the Political Bureau was permitted to visit other countries, including Turkey and Qatar, on the condition that he would not visit Iran.

It was far from Haniya’s intention to break the deal with the Egyptians, thus undermining the already brittle relations with the neighboring state.  However, the death of the general and the subsequent funeral in Teheran changed the picture. Despite the clear condition imposed by Egypt, Haniya took the risk and decided to fly to Teheran to attend the funeral. The response from Cairo was prompt and harsh: the price of cooking gas funneled into the Strip immediately increased, directly affecting the living conditions of the almost two million people living in Gaza.

 

The Islamic Resistance Movement

After its establishment at the end of the 1980s as an offshoot of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamic Resistance Movement, better known under its acronym Hamas, soon grew thanks to its involvement in and support to Islamist social institutions in Palestine and its active role in the first intifada (1987-1993). It therefore quickly emerged thanks to its deep grassroots support, its resistance to secularist factions such as Fatah and the broader Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), as well as its military resistance against Israel.

After the second intifada (2000-2005), Hamas decided to participate in the long-awaited Palestinian legislative elections, marking a fundamental turning point for the movement. Hamas’ decision to participate in the 2006 elections was, in fact, a game-changer. These elections for the Palestinian National Authority (the PNA is an interim administrative organization that nominally governs parts of the West Bank and Gaza, with the institutional character of a proper state) marked the entrance of Hamas into national and international politics, their acceptance to play under established institutions with set rules and frameworks, and signaled a coming to terms with political realities.

Hamas not only participated in the elections, but it recorded an unexpected victory. In the following year, Hamas attempted to form and sustain a functional government in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, despite the harsh difficulties caused by the strict economic sanctions imposed by the international community. Therefore, after a failed attempt to form a coalition government with Fatah, the secular party whose leader, Mahmoud Abbas, held – and still holds – the presidency of the PNA, in June 2007 Hamas seized control of the Gaza Strip.

Since then, Hamas is the ultimate political authority in control over the besieged land. It was able to gain control over the governmental apparatus: the parliament, the judicial system, the economy, and the security and military forces. As in charge of a de facto state in the Strip, Hamas is thus responsible to and for its citizens and its territory. And as the political head of Hamas, Haniya’s rulings and behaviors unquestionably affect life – and lives – in the Strip, just as much as in any other country.

Throughout the years, people in Gaza have always sensed the consequences of Hamas’s merits and mistakes, and public opinion towards the party has oscillated accordingly. Egypt knows well that economic sanctions have a direct effect on Hamas’ political power, and that is why it quickly imposed sanctions on Gaza following Haniya’s decision to attend the funeral.

 

Making and breaking of an Axis

To understand why Hamas found itself, once again, in this unpleasant situation, it is necessary to go back almost a decade, when the whole region was shaken by the events of the Arab Spring. Before the uprisings of 2010-2011, Hamas’ international relations and connections were profoundly different from how they appear today. Since the 2000s, Hamas was a crucial member of what has been labeled the “axis of resistance”, an alliance between four members that brought together different – and at first sight opposite – players. The axis bridged Hamas, a Sunni movement, and Syria, a secular Ba’athist regime, together with two Shia actors: Iran and Hezbollah. The axis was not, in fact, a formalised military alliance, but rather a political alliance based on common enemies. These include Israel, a rejection of Western policies in the Middle East (mainly of the United States), and an antagonism towards pro-Western Arab status quo powers, first and foremost Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Jordan. And it was from the members of the alliance that Hamas received not only financial and military support, but also political recognition.

On the other side of the Strip, Hosni Mubarak always dealt carefully with the Islamist movement. The historical and ideological connection between Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood added to the security and military instability that the presence of Hamas in Gaza implied, pushed former president Mubarak to maintain a certain degree of detachment from the movement, especially to avoid the possibility of undermining Egyptian-Israeli relations.

Eventually, the Arab Spring changed the political connotations of the region. At that time, the foreign headquarter of Hamas, home of the members of the movement in exile, was based in Damascus. With the rise of the protests in Syria, Hamas found itself amid a civil war and in a new international scenario in which it did not intend to take a side. Hamas dealt with the Syrian issue with extreme caution. It analysed strategically the political gains and losses it could encounter standing on Assad’s side or on the side of the people. Hamas could not forget the support the Syrian regime had given to the movement and its resistance line in the past years, however, precisely for its ideology of resistance, Hamas felt it had to support the right of the Syrian people to express their will. For several months after the spark of the revolution, Hamas avoided expressing a clear opinion or stance in the conflict and tried to maintain the role of mediator between the parties.

However, almost a year after the start of the revolution, Hamas finally took a clear stand against the regime, irreversibly compromising its relations not only with Assad, but also with Iran and Hezbollah. The decision by Hamas to leave the axis came in the hopes that the newly elected Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt would become its main backer. Mohammed Morsi’s victory in June 2012 was seen not only as an enormous gain in terms of political support for the Palestinian movement but also as an economic one. Political and economic support from Egypt, the Strip’s only neighbouring, could have meant an end to the economic blockade and isolation of Hamas, something that could compensate for the loss of Syria and Iran.

Drawing on its historical roots, geographical position, and ideological similarities, Hamas saw a chance to gain more advantages for its government and authority in the Strip by shifting towards Egypt. However, Hamas could not have foreseen the deposition of Morsi one year later. The military coup of July 2013 brought to power the Egyptian army chief Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi, who soon adopted a hostile position towards Hamas, tightening the blockade and cutting any political dialogue, possibly placing Hamas-Egypt relations in a worse scenario than during the Mubarak regime.

 

Partner by necessity

As for today, Egypt has a diplomatic, strategic, and economic compelling power on Hamas. First of all, it plays a crucial role in the Hamas-Israeli talks. Thanks to its much closer relations with Israel that any other Arab country in the area, Egypt can more easily bring the two conflicting parties to the same table. Additionally, Egypt has a strategic and economic control over Gaza, as it not only supervises the southern crossing, deciding who and what can pass through Rafah, but also supplies the Strip with a high percentage of its energy and gas needs, that consequently can easily be cut in case of frictions with the ruling power, Hamas. If anyone residing in Gaza wishes to leave – this includes Hamas’ leaders and members– permission needs to be granted by the Egyptian authorities, and this is a window no one wants to close. All this, added to the economic and energetic dependence on Egypt, leads Hamas to consider the country as an indispensable partner.

When, in 2012, Hamas left Syria and Iran to boost its Egyptian relations, it made a strategic and political decision aimed at improving economic conditions in the Strip and its political power over the territory. As 2020 dawns, Hamas once again has found itself in the middle of an international confrontation that could compromise its fragile stability in the Strip. If it wishes to recover relations with Egypt, it will have to abide by its future conditions and it is plausible to suppose that it will make the same strategic and political decision made in 2012; despite closer ideological ties with Iran, Egypt has more to offer.

Photo: MOHAMMED ABED / AFP


Follow us on Twitter, like our page on Facebook. And share our contents.

If you liked our analysis, stories, videos, dossier, sign up for our newsletter (twice a month).