Open Zion

07.12.13

Arab Spring Keeps Sending Hamas Packing

The Arab uprisings that have for more than two years roiled the Middle East and North Africa must by now bring a sense of disquiet to Hamas, the Palestinian group that holds up "resistance"—often with terrorist tactics—against Israel. The group's exiled leadership was already displaced by the Syrian civil war, and lost a key backer in Iran over sectarian tensions. Since January 2012, Hamas's leadership has been based in both Cairo and Doha. 

Now the latest tumult in Egypt that unseated Mohammed Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood government again took away access to an allied Islamist group with state power. While analysts disagree on how swimmingly the relationship between the Brotherhood and Hamas was going, they believe Hamas will be sent packing again with the group's ouster.

“The idea that the Muslim Brotherhood was a gift to Hamas and that they worked together closely is nonsense. It’s absolute nonsense,” said Mark Perry, a journalist and expert on Middle Eastern terror groups, in an interview. “But the situation right now is without question much worse. We’re in a very revolutionary situation in Egypt. And the coup in Egypt—that’s what it was—was not good for Hamas.”

In this volatile see-saw for Hamas’ leadership—sending them careening between various Arab capitals, vulnerable to each country’s fluctuating and unstable political situation—it's not entirely clear where Hamas will go.

“I think Hamas will continue to operate out of Qatar,” said Perry. “I don’t think it’s any question that it would be very difficult to operate out of Cairo for now, but the future is very much in the air. What’s going on there isn’t over by a long shot.”

David Pollack, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, agreed, but said even the natural gas-rich Gulf Arab sheikhdom may not provide a stable home. “I’d guess Qatar, but sadly Tunisia is also possible, or even Turkey at times,” he said. “Qatar is having second thoughts [about supporting Hamas]. It’s not clear just yet, and they certainly haven’t announced it, but it seems that for Qatar, things are crumbling around them, whether it’s the Syrian opposition or the events in Egypt. Their earlier idea of rebuilding Gaza is just not happening.”

Hamas conducted strategic operations from Jordan until 1999, when Jordanian King Abdullah accused the Sunni Islamist group of engaging in illegal activities and attempting to harm the peace treaty between his country and Israel. Jordan expelled Hamas Chief Khaled Meshaal, reportedly at the request of Israel, the United States and the Palestinian Authority, and he moved briefly to Qatar. In 2001, he resettled in the Syrian capital and for the next eleven years the Hamas political bureau would operate out of Damascus. The Syrian government provided the group a safe haven, weapons and financial support for an armed struggle against Israel.

The killings of some 7,000 Sunni Syrians in March of 2011 by predominately Alawite security forces forced Hamas to take a stand. Despite their initial attempts to remain neutral, the group ultimately came out against the Assad regime, and thus faced the wrath of the Syrian and Iranian governments. 

Beginning in 2012, it was clear it was no longer feasible for Hamas to operate in Damascus. Deputy Political Leader Moussa Abu Marzouk moved to Cairo and Khaled Meshaal and his aides moved to Doha. The rise of the Muslim Brotherhood to political power after the revolution provided an ostensible ally—Hamas has roots in the Egyptian Brotherhood. 

A picture taken from Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip on the border with Egypt, on July 5, 2013 shows an Egyptian soldier standing on top of a watch tower in the Egyptian side of the border. (Said Khatib / AFP / Getty Images)
A picture taken from Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip on the border with Egypt, on July 5, 2013 shows an Egyptian soldier standing on top of a watch tower in the Egyptian side of the border. (Said Khatib / AFP / Getty Images) ()

But the Brotherhood proved a less-than-stalwart adherent to Hamas's agenda. When Morsi was elected in June 2012, one of his first promises was to fully open the Rafah crossing, which separates Egypt from the Gaza Strip, where Hamas has ruled since a violent counter-coup in 2007. “For most Palestinians, Rafah is more than a crossing—it is a symbol for the isolated Gaza Strip’s contact with the outside world,” reported McClatchy.  But while loosening travel restrictions and allowing individuals to more easily cross, Morsi never fulfilled his pledge of a full opening.

Egyptian public opinion has soured substantially towards Gaza, compared to the beginning of the revolution. Many Egyptians blamed Hamas members for instability in the Sinai Peninsula. In April, Egyptian soldiers and officers were abducted there, and Hamas was accused of the kidnapping. Hamas denied the allegations, but the situation amplified rising negative sentiments. Other Egyptians hold a general frustration at their leaders for what they see as a trend of helping Gazans instead of their own citizens. A 23-year-old Egyptian student, Ala Mafrouk, who took part in the Tahrir Square protests, told McClatchy, the Brotherhood "sends things to Gaza which we do not have in Egypt. We want to get rid of Morsi and get a new leader who puts Egypt first.”

Hamas's troubles are compounded by its remaining roster of potential allies and hosts. Hamas has “only two patrons left, and both are Western allies that could be tempted to throw Hamas under the bus for greater financial or political incentives,” wrote Foundation For Defense of Democracies vice president Jonathan Schanzer. Meshaal's expulsion from Jordan a decade and a half ago gives weight to Schanzer's warning.

Just last year, it seemed as if Hamas—with the Brotherhood dominating Egyptian electoral politics—might be ascendant. But for now, at least, the tumult in the Middle East appears to have left the group adrift.