Egypt's al-Sissi Offers Hamas an Escape Hatch

The man who's likely to be Egypt's next president is trying to ensure his country's role in facilitating Palestinian reconciliation.

A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el
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Abdel Fattah al-Sisi giving his first television interview since announcing his candidacy in Cairo. May 4, 2014.Credit: AFP
A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

“I call on Hamas to rehabilitate its relations with Egypt before it loses the affection of the Egyptian people once and for all,” suggested Gen. Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi in a recent interview on Egyptian television. His words immediately led to a wave of speculation concerning the intentions of the man who is considered a shoo-in candidate for his country's presidency.

In contrast to his tough and uncompromising attitude toward the Muslim Brotherhood, which has been described as a terror organization, Sissi is offering Hamas a political escape hatch that is apparently designed to speed up the reconciliation between Hamas and Fatah, which Egypt supports.

The optimistic reports coming from Egypt and elsewhere about a rapprochement, or at least a thaw in the attitude toward Hamas, are steadily increasing.

Among them is the announcement by Ahmed Abu Ras, director of the Qatari Technical Committee for the Reconstruction of Gaza, who said over the weekend that Egypt is likely to open the Rafah border crossing so as to allow for transportation of building materials donated by Qatar, as part of the approximately $400-million grant announced by the ruler of Qatar two years ago.

According to Abu Ras, Egypt will open the crossing at least once a week for this purpose, beginning in June. Moreover, he noted that the Qatari committee is coordinating its activity with "the Israeli side," and that transport of the building materials via Israel will take place in parallel to the transfer of goods from Egypt.

Among other things, Qatar is financing the construction of a residential neighborhood for prisoners released by Israel, which will include between 200 and 300 residential units.

Egypt is also waiting for the announcement of the formation of a Palestinian unity government, to be composed of technocrats who are politically unaffiliated.

This declaration, which is scheduled to be publicized in coming days, will enable Egypt to open the Rafah crossing on a regular basis, since, according to the agreement formulated between the Palestinian Authority and Hamas, the crossing will be jointly supervised by representatives of the PA and the Islamist movement. In this way, Cairo will be granting de facto recognition of the latter's participation in the new Palestinian government.

In the past two years Hamas has been dealt serious blows by Egypt, which, among other things, has destroyed most of the smuggling tunnels connecting Gaza to Sinai – thereby wreaking mortal damage to the economic resources of the Hamas government.

Egypt has also accused the organization of military cooperation with the Muslim Brotherhood, and of helping former Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi and other Brotherhood activists to escape from prison on the eve of the 2011 revolution in Egypt, in cooperation with terror organizations in Sinai.

On the other hand, Sissi realizes that Gaza cannot remain besieged both by Egypt and Israel, and if he wants to ensure Egypt’s status as the country responsible for solving the Palestinian problem, he cannot ignore the situation in the Strip.

Hamas has welcomed Sissi’s recent comments, with a senior leader in the movement, Mahmoud al-Zahar, declaring, “These words accord with the traditional Hamas policy, which is based on good relations with all the Arab countries, and with Egypt in particular.”

Meanwhile, the Islamic organization has to decide about the nature of its future rule in Gaza. A united Palestinian government will have to accept Hamas' responsibility over the Strip, both in terms of ongoing administration and budgetary allocations. Arab countries that support the reconciliation between the Palestinian movements, such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, have promised in talks with PA President Mahmoud Abbas that they will help the new government, since the reconciliation will serve regional interests, in addition to being beneficial for the Palestinians.

According to a recent item in the Saudi newspaper Al Watan, the rapprochement between Fatah and Hamas was discussed in early April by Hamas chief Khaled Meshal and the head of Qatari intelligence. The latter explained to Meshal that his organization must speed up the reconciliation process, because the diplomatic rupture between Qatar and Saudi Arabia, on the one hand, and the other Gulf countries, on the other, has been aimed at checking Qatar’s support for the Muslim Brotherhood and to align its policy with that of the Gulf countries.

The head of Qatari intelligence noted that his country's support for Hamas is perceived in Cairo as an act that is directed against it. He explained to Meshal that in light of that and of the crisis between Qatar and Egypt, Qatar is liable to reconsider its policy toward Hamas, which explains that organization's urgent efforts to win Arab legitimacy through reconciliation with the PA.

Following his conversation with the Qatari, Meshal explained these developments to other leaders in his movement, and shortly afterward the reconciliation agreement between the PA and Hamas was signed.

Attempts to form a unity government are, meanwhile, skirting the question of Hamas’ weapons and the continued existence of various military groups active in Gaza.

At this point there is no discussion about disarming Hamas or building a unified military force. A decision on this issue will apparently be postponed until after the PA elections, whose date has not yet been decided.

The formation of a Palestinian unity government will demand that Israel come to a decision regarding how to behave toward it, especially if the new government is recognized by European countries and Arab countries belonging to the pro-American bloc. The automatic response, meanwhile, is to boycott such a government, but that decision is liable to have far-reaching consequences vis-a-vis the PA’s ability to continue to administer the territories.