Hamas in the Crosshairs
Today's BBC headline says it all: "Egypt crisis: Morsi accused of plotting with Hamas." In other words, just when you thought things couldn't get any worse for Hamas, they suddenly did.
Former Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi has been arrested on a variety of charges, mainly to do with alleged crimes in collusion with Hamas. The accusations include several attacks on various prisons, including a 2011 jailbreak in which Morsi escaped. Morsi is specifically charged with collaborating with Hamas "to carry out anti-state acts, attacking police stations and army officers and storming prisons, setting fire to one prison and enabling inmates to flee, including himself, as well as premeditated killing of officers, soldiers and prisoners." Heady stuff to say the least.
Yesterday in Open Zion, I explained how the Egyptian military, government and a significant percent of the population see Hamas as an integral part of a wide-ranging security crisis. This includes the ongoing and intensifying insurgency by "Jihadist" militants in Sinai, which continues to deteriorate. Hamas is widely believed to have an ongoing cooperative relationship with these extremists, to the detriment of Egyptian national security, and some 35 of its fighters are said to have been killed when the Egyptian counteroffensive began two weeks ago.
That the Sinai insurgency exploded with unparalleled fury immediately after the ouster of Morsi fueled heavy suspicions on the part of many in Egypt that the former president was giving the extremists "a free hand" in Sinai and that Hamas was deeply involved in fueling this crisis. The Egyptian authorities are facing a two-front battle involving Muslim Brotherhood supporters and opponents in competing protests and street clashes, as well as the Sinai insurgency.
Alarm has intensified given a bomb attack on Wednesday against the police headquarters in the city of Mansoura, which killed one soldier and injured 28 others. The bottom line concern is that coordinated, armed anti-government violence seems to be spreading from the Sinai periphery into more central parts of Egypt, and that such violence is at least parallel to, or at worst dovetailing with, unrest stoked by angry Muslim Brotherhood supporters.
Reports that Brotherhood officials have assured local elders that attacks in Sinai would stop if Morsi were reinstated as president reinforce the idea that there is an ideological and, indeed, operational connection between the Brotherhood and the Sinai extremists. Army Chief of Staff General Abdel Fattah Sisi has declared a "war on terrorism," which seems to be something of a catchall, including Brotherhood violent protests or rioting, attacks such as the bombing of the police station in Mansoura and violent actions by radicals in Sinai. At least from the point of view of the Egyptian state, and much of it society, these are not merely parallel crises, but interconnected ones.
It is into this maelstrom that Hamas has allowed itself—and consequently the long-suffering Palestinian residents of Gaza—to be drawn as a key element. They are at least a crucial secondary target of all of the Egyptian authorities' security and counterterrorism measures. Most Gaza smuggling tunnels have been destroyed. The border crossing with Egypt is essentially closed. Fuel, food, construction materials, medical and other supplies, and all necessary goods are reaching a crisis level of shortage in Gaza. And in the latest punitive measure from Egyptian authorities, Gaza fishermen are now banned for the first time from Egyptian territorial waters, a move clearly linked to the intensifying tensions with Hamas and framed, naturally, in terms of "national security."
'But, rather than reassessing their policies, or repositioning themselves given the dire crisis they, and the Palestinians living under their rule, now face, Hamas seems to have inexplicably decided to double-down on their relationship with the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood in general, and Morsi in particular.
Hamas understands full well that the charges brought against Morsi center almost entirely around their relationship with him. Of course they vociferously deny any involvement in the 2011 jailbreak or any other form of "interference" in internal Egyptian affairs, including in Sinai. The problem is that there is an enormous amount of both direct and circumstantial evidence to the contrary.
But, astonishingly, rather than distancing themselves from the crisis, Hamas leaders have intensified their engagement in it. A Hamas spokesman actually said, in response to the charges against Morsi, "Hamas condemns this move since it is based on the premise that the Hamas movement is hostile" to Egypt. As if that were not provocative enough, he continued, "This is a dangerous development, which confirms that the current powers in Egypt are giving up on national causes and even using these issues to deal with other parties—first among them the Palestinian cause."
So rather than trying to adjust to the new situation, ways of easing tensions with the Egyptian government and military, and ease the political crisis facing Hamas is a movement, not to mention the humanitarian and economic crisis people of Gaza as a population, Hamas' leaders have decided the best move at the current stage is to reinforce their association with Morsi and take a hostile and belligerent attitude towards the new Egyptian government.
It may be ideologically consistent, but this approach is strategically incomprehensible. It can only further deepen the crisis that has been intensifying without respite for Hamas since Morsi's downfall.
The new Egyptian authorities are playing a game of chicken with the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood. The Brotherhood has been hoping to mobilize popular outrage against the military and has been pushing a narrative of unlawful "usurpation of legitimacy" based on democratic elections, backed up by "massacres" against peaceful Islamist protesters. So far, there is every indication that the overwhelming bulk of the Egyptian public isn't buying it at all.
It's possible that with the intensifying crackdown on the Brotherhood leadership, the government may be going too far. But so far, that doesn't seem to have happened. In so far as they are associated in the public mind, fairly or unfairly, with the Mansoura police station bombing, and with riots and unrest, the Brotherhood's popular credibility appears to be tanking even further than ever. Heated rhetoric about "martyrdom" and "civil war" from Brotherhood firebrands may be tasty raw meat for their enraged rank-and-file, but they alienate and, indeed terrify, the vast majority of Egyptians.
But even if the military and the government and up overplaying their hand in a crackdown against the Brotherhood and others, it's still almost inconceivable to construct a scenario in which the Muslim Brotherhood returns to a position of government power in Egypt anytime in the foreseeable future. The Army's loss is not necessarily the Brotherhood's gain. Those could end up badly discredited in public opinion, but the military and the government are in a much stronger position at least over the medium run, and, indeed, into the foreseeable future.
It would be fascinating to learn what is going on in the heads of Hamas leaders who appear to be bending over backwards to insure that they are high on the list of targets of Egypt's new "war on terrorism." That they are at the center of the charges the authorities decided to file against Morsi today, especially considering that there were many other potential accusations that could have been lodged against him instead, puts them on clear notice that they are very much in the line of fire. Yet they don't seem to be interested in finding a way to get themselves, or the people of Gaza, out of the crosshairs. On the contrary, their current attitude seems to be "bring it on."
It's unfathomable, and because they are directly responsible for the well-being of the people of Gaza, unforgivably irresponsible.