Egypt Turns Its Tentacles on Hamas

Clampdown leaves Gaza government on brink of bankruptcy.

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The relationship between Egypt and Hamas reached a new nadir yesterday with a court decision to ban the movement’s activity in Egypt and seize its offices and assets. This is one step before declaring Hamas a terrorist organization, which is how the Muslim Brotherhood is designated.

The Egyptian Court for Urgent Matters issued the ruling as a partial response to a suit filed by attorney Samir Sabri, one of the most vocal opponents of the Brotherhood. Sabri had filed his petition against the country’s president, prime minister and interior minister, demanding that Hamas be declared a terrorist group since it is an integral part of the Muslim Brotherhood and because of its activity “against Egyptian national security.”

Sabri based his suit against Hamas on three incidents: the breaching of the border between Gaza and Egypt in 2008, the jailbreak from Natrun Prison in January 2011 in which thousands of prisoners affiliated with the Brotherhood were helped to escape on the eve of the revolution, and suspicion of Hamas’ involvement in the killing of 16 Egyptian army officers in an August 2012 attack.

In addition to Sabri’s lawsuit, an administrative court is considering another suit that demands that Hamas leaders be banned from Egypt until a verdict is reached in the trial of deposed Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi. The court postponed a hearing in that case to May.

The ban on Hamas activity in Egypt and the seizure of its assets is basically a declarative step, since Hamas doesn’t have any active institutions in Egypt or any formally organized activity. Hamas has bank accounts in Egypt, but the court did not touch these.

Nevertheless, the ruling is a significant statement that undermines the movement’s legitimacy in Egypt, and reflects the Egyptian public’s mindset since the overthrow of the Muslim Brotherhood’s regime, whose leadership is accused of conspiring with Hamas against the state. Blocking Hamas’ access to Egypt is considered a legitimate response, and part of the military’s struggle against terrorism in Sinai, despite the perception that Hamas is now the primary resistance force against Israel.

It’s no wonder that Hamas spokesmen yesterday accused the court and the Egyptian government of defending Israel’s interests and cooperating with Israel against “the interests of the Palestinian people.”

No less important is the closure Egypt has imposed on the Gaza Strip, which includes a very partial opening of the Rafah crossing (only three days every two weeks) and the refusal to allow Egyptian solidarity missions into the Strip. Egypt is thus complementing the Israeli blockade on Gaza, which, together with the destruction of the smuggling tunnels that served to transfer goods and cash into the Strip, is putting the Hamas regime on the brink of bankruptcy.

According to data published by Hamas, its budget for 2014 is $894 million, but that budget has a deficit of $699 million since expected revenues top out at only $195 million. Many government workers have not been paid for four months, while others have only received part of their salaries. Demands by the government workers union to pay all the salaries have received only a partial answer from the administration, which has told the workers that next month they will get only half the sums coming to them, while the rest will be paid when a budgetary source to cover it is found. It’s hard to fathom what that commitment is based on since Hamas’ external funding sources are primarily donations by private people and organizations, after Iran stopped its assistance and Qatar is only willing to finance projects, not provide operating funds.

At the same time, Hamas political bureau chief Khaled Meshal is trying to find a place for himself and the Hamas leadership to settle, after Qatar is proving to be too far from the action for them. According to Arabic press reports, he may return to Lebanon. But settling in Lebanon would force him to change his position on Syria and Hezbollah, after relations between them were severed when Meshal severely criticized the slaughter in Syria.

Meanwhile, the double blockade by both Israel and Egypt and the severe and increasing distress of the 1.7 million residents of Gaza have long been dropped from the Arab political discourse. And neither United States nor Europe, which have despaired of persuading Israel to stop the siege, are interested in starting up with Egypt on an issue considered “an internal Egyptian matter.”

Tunnel workers sit outside a smuggling tunnel on the border between Egypt and the southern Gaza Strip February 17, 2014.Credit: Reuters

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