Analysis |

Egypt's Political, Military Leadership Divided Over Support for Hamas

The economic-security pressure which the Egyptian army is exerting on Hamas is showing Morsi the limits of his power in conducting negotiations with the Palestinians.

A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el
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A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

Khaled Meshal's reinstatement this week as head of the political bureau of Hamas did not come as a surprise, at least not to Egyptian intelligence, whose head, Gen. Raafat Shehata, exerted heavy pressure in favor of the move. The ruler of Qatar − a country that has become one of Hamas’ financial bulwarks in the wake of the Islamist organization’s break with Syria − as well as Jordan’s King Abdullah, who in recent months forged new ties with Meshal, both worked to ensure that the Hamas leader would retract his declared intention to step down. ‏(It is still not clear how serious he was about retiring.‏)

According to one Egyptian source, “Meshal has become a figure who is indispensable at this time. He has displayed leadership and an ability to control the events on the ground. He has charisma that his rivals, such as [Meshal’s deputy] Mousa Abu Marzouk and [Hamas Prime Minister] Ismail Haniyeh, lack and he is committed to the Arab line and not to Iran.”

With Egypt trying to promote a Fatah-Hamas rapprochement, Meshal is a key figure who can calm down the radicals in his organization who have waged a murderous struggle against Fatah activists. Meshal also has not come out against negotiations with Israel − provided that they are not conducted by PA President Mahmoud Abbas. Plus the political bureau chief also accepted, following massive pressure, the Arab Peace Initiative originally proposed in 2002. If the Palestinians hold an election and Hamas wins, Arab states would prefer to see Meshal in power rather than any of the other senior figures in the movement who are currently running the Gaza Strip.

But the close relationship between the head of Egyptian intelligence and Meshal does not mean that the relationship between Hamas and the Egyptian army − as opposed to the ties the Islamist organization has with the Egyptian president − is proceeding calmly.

For example, even as Meshal and Haniyeh held talks with the top officers in Egyptian intelligence last weekend, the Egyptian army continued to demolish the tunnels that link the Gaza Strip and Sinai. After destroying some 250 last month, the army flooded another 76 tunnels with sewage, after locating them by means of satellite information, probably in cooperation with the United States. The dozens of trucks that arrived in the area of the tunnels to unload their wares had to return to El-Arish. They left behind not only disappointed Gazan and Egyptian merchants, but also a wave of price rises in Gaza and economic damage to the Hamas government, which collects fees for the transfer of goods through the tunnels.

The Egyptian defense minister, Gen. Abdel Fattah el-Sissi, made it clear this week that the army would continue its extensive activity against terrorism in Sinai, and added: “The Egyptian army has no need for the aid of Hamas or any other body. The Egyptian army is capable of coping with terrorism on its own.” That comment came after Hamas leaders again offered their help in thwarting the Sinai-based arms smuggling and terrorist attacks.

A deep rift arose between the Egyptian army and Hamas after the attack last August in which 23 Egyptian officers were killed inside Sinai, on the Rafah border. The army accuses Hamas activists of being behind the incident, and denials by Meshal and Haniyeh were of no avail. Sissi turned down requests for a meeting with the Hamas leader or other senior officers. Not even mediation efforts by President Mohammed Morsi were able to budge Sissi − whose relations with the president are far from warm. Sissi agreed only to have the head of intelligence meet with Meshal and Haniyeh, because, as he explained, “This involves matters of policy and politics related to the Palestinian reconciliation, matters under the responsibility of Egyptian intelligence.”

Moreover, senior Egyptian army sources recently told the newspaper Al Tahrir that the army “conducts relations with regular armies of states and not with secret organizations.” “Secret organizations” is a mild expression compared to some of the not-for-quotation epithets used by Egyptian sources in regard to Hamas.

The refusal by army officials to meet with leaders of Hamas, and the ongoing demolition of the tunnels, are intended not only to improve security in the area or to settle accounts with Hamas. For Sissi, these actions, which enjoy public support, are also meant to show President Morsi that the army will determine where national threats exist, and will also decide on how to meet them − whether it involves smugglers in Sinai or demonstrators in Port Said. In this way, the defense minister, himself a Morsi appointment, is demarcating the line of separation between the powers of the political leadership and those of the military leadership. However, even that separation could become blurred with the army taking action that affects developments in Gaza, including the local economy and Hamas’ ability to manage the Strip. There are no official data about the economic damage caused by the destruction of the tunnels, through which 30 percent of the goods imported into Gaza pass.

Reports from Gaza indicate that since the Egyptian army began to demolish tunnels, in February, the price of construction materials has spiraled. For example, the price of a ton of cement soared overnight from NIS 350 to NIS 650. Residential construction has been halted, plans to pave roads have been shelved and thousands of people have lost their jobs. The economic-security pressure which the Egyptian army is exerting on Hamas is showing Morsi the limits of his power in conducting negotiations with the Palestinians in general and with Hamas in particular.

Domestically, too, Morsi is under heavy pressure, and not only from the secular opposition. A former senior figure in the Muslim Brotherhood, Dr. Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, who was himself a candidate for the presidency, stated this week that “the national opposition is determined to topple the current regime by democratic means.” This is because the flaws and shortcomings in the country’s management are no longer tolerable, and because “the president, his party and his tribe are incapable of ruling Egypt or of completing the goals of the revolution.”

The criticism of the Muslim Brotherhood was heightened by a long and detailed investigative report in the opposition newspaper Al Watan about the Organization’s sources of income. The report claims the movement enjoys donations of tens of millions of dollars, and that the money is deposited in bank branches and financial institutions in Switzerland, Italy, the Bahamas and Arab states. This is on top of investments “on a scale of billions of dollars” which Muslim Brotherhood businessmen have made in Arab states, and which serve as a regular source for their activities.

The investigative report, which took five months to compile and is based on documentation, also notes that one of the Muslim Brotherhood’s leading businessmen, Youssef Nada, who established Al Taqwa Bank in the Bahamas in the 1990s, is on the United States’ list of terrorists due to the suspicion that he was involved in financing the attacks of September 11, 2001. The organization’s former general guide, Mohammed Mahdi Akef, declared that the Muslim Brotherhood exists in 72 countries and run dozens of charitable organizations throughout the world, including the U.S.

Another former figure in the Muslim Brotherhood, Thawrat al-Hirbawi, who was interviewed by Al Watan, related that the movement enjoys monthly donations of $100 million through its charitable organizations. Not all the money reaches Egypt; some of it is transferred to other branches of the Brotherhood, and some is earmarked for business investments. With Egypt in the grip of a deep economic crisis and seeking financing for its governmental services, a report of this kind does not enhance the movement’s reputation or legitimacy − or that of Morsi. Indeed, neither the Muslim Brotherhood nor Morsi can picture the end of the revolt against them at this time.

A smuggling tunnel. The army destroyed some 250 tunnels last month, and flooded another 76 with sewage, after locating them by means of satellite information.Credit: Reuters
Khaled Meshal, head of Hamas' political bureau.Credit: Reuters

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