Hamas Is Drawing the Maps

Egypt’s president may have come out of the Gaza conflict in a strong position, but it’s still Hamas that’s shaping new alliances in the region.

A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el
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Supporters of Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi in Cairo, June 2014, displaying his image alongside that of late president Gamal Abdel Nasser.
Supporters of Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi in Cairo, June 2014, displaying his image alongside that of late president Gamal Abdel Nasser.Credit: AP
A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi is not a king, but this week he reminded Egypt of the beautiful days of the rule of Khedive Said, who initiated the digging of the Suez Canal, and Khedive Ismail, who inaugurated it. One hundred and forty-five years after the inauguration ceremony, Sissi presented to Egyptians his regime’s flagship project, a 72-kilometer (44-mile) waterway parallel to the Suez Canal, which he says will bring in a lot of money to the country’s empty coffers. The project, called “Long Live Egypt,” is expected to cost more than $4 billion, and the money, Sissi promised, would be paid by Egyptian businessmen who have already enlisted for it.

According to Sissi’s vision, the project will bring in 100 billion Egyptian pounds ($13.9 billion) for the development of Egypt. This parallel canal is expected to begin operation within a year, a time period that, according to Egyptian economists, is not exactly realistic. Even the expected revenues have raised doubts, but this project seems – at least for now – more promising than the national project of former President Hosni Mubarak’s to make the desert bloom, which remained buried, together with hundreds of millions of dollars, in the desert sands.

The economic rehabilitation of Egypt is an anchor of Sissi’s election campaign. The other anchor is the fight against terror – specifically, the imprisonment of members of the Muslim Brotherhood, which he calls a terror movement – in a locked cage, political and physical, in order to do away with the phenomenon of “radical Islam” in Egypt.

Sissi views his struggle against Hamas through two lenses. Through one he sees a terror organization that cooperated with the terror groups in Sinai and is responsible, or at least a partner, to the killing of 16 Egyptian officers in August 2012. He sees it as helping the Muslim Brotherhood, including Mohammed Morsi, escape from prison on the eve of the January 2011 revolution; as an organization that ate and drank from the hand of Iran, and as a client for weapons smuggled from Libya and Sudan, via Egypt, that armed the Sinai smugglers.

Through the other lens, he sees a political organization, a militant branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, which has complicated things with Israel for the Egyptian regime, undermines Palestinian Authority rule, and serves as an example of the ability of Muslim movements to take over governments.

Ostensibly, Sissi has all the reasons in the world to act against Hamas and undermine its position. We can only guess that if the Gaza Strip was under Egyptian rule, Sissi would have acted against the Hamas leadership as he did against the Muslim Brotherhood: mass arrests, quick trials and draconian verdicts, including the death penalty.

But no Egyptian regime has sought, and rightly so, to control the roiling Gaza Strip. Sissi doesn’t need this morass, which is considered hostile terrain. Now he will do all he can so the Strip does not threaten Egypt.

And he can do a great deal. The Rafah crossing that he controls is an essential artery for Gaza, and so he has been working over the past two years to make that crossing the only one between the Strip and Sinai. He destroyed the tunnels; he opens the Rafah crossing intermittently; and he has prohibited Hamas activity in Egypt, although Hamas has no formal activity there.

Sissi does not need to coordinate his steps with parliament, which has not yet been elected, or make them consistent with the constitution, most of whose clauses – particularly the ones about the army and the president – he “helped” frame. The traditional press is monitored by the state, and the social media sites that the revolution generated have begun to learn their limitations, especially after the infuriating trial of the prominent blogger Alaa Abd al-Fattah, who was sentenced to 15 years in prison and fined 100,000 Egyptian Pounds. Fattah will probably win the retrial set for September, but the message has been conveyed.

Sissi involves the military in civilian matters such as the construction of residential housing and the training of workers for civilian industries. On the political level, he is taking the negative route. He hasn’t initiated any action to promote negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians; he hasn’t offered troops or help to the rebels in Syria. He didn’t take part in the first meeting of its kind, this week, of leaders of African nations initiated by U.S. President Barack Obama; he didn’t consult Washington or U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry before he published the Egyptian initiative for a Gaza cease-fire; and he didn’t allow Iranian delegations to come to the Gaza Strip to help.

He despises Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and views him as the enemy. He sees Qatar as a flea that rose to the top thanks to its money. Saudi Arabia alone is his friend, a strong ally on which he relies economically.

But the war in Gaza has left an opportunity on his doorstep to show a proactive policy, something he is taking advantage of – and not only vis-à-vis Hamas. He is stiff-necked toward Washington, a stance he apparently inherited from Mubarak, who did not visit the United States for five years in protest over the latter’s conduct toward his country. Kerry had to put off landing in Cairo three times because Sissi pulled the rug out from under him. Sissi showed Qatar that the money it gives Hamas didn’t buy it influence in one critical place: Cairo. However, there are more than 130,000 Egyptians working in Qatar in a variety of professions, and that is the reason Egypt didn’t join Saudi Arabia last March in cutting ties with the super-rich state.

It is also interesting that Qatar is in no hurry to expel the Egyptian workers as punishment for Egypt’s policy, because these workers can act as political leverage when the time comes. Qatar may have lost the political battle in Gaza, but it hasn’t ended its political function in the region. Sissi will now try to see to it that the rehabilitation of Gaza – to which Qatar is expected to contribute a great deal of money – will pass through Egyptian filters and those of the Palestinian Authority.

Sissi’s victory is also the victory of Saudi Arabia, which did not make itself prominent during the war but backed up all of the Egyptian president’s moves. It did so because it, too, has a long accounting with Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood, as well as a poisoned relationship with Qatar. That is not because of Hamas, but because of Qatar’s close relationship with Iran and its support for the Syrian militias that are not subservient to the Saudi pocket.

Along with Qatar, Erdogan is also perceived to have fallen prey to his own policies. But on Sunday he will probably be able to reward himself with his expected presidential win. His screams and curses against Israel resemble those he formerly hurled at Syrian President Bashar Assad. They are the public manifestation of the “value-laden foreign policy” he is marketing. However, his foreign policy has already been harshly criticized, not only by his political opponents but even by members of his own party, and it seems his policy is collapsing on other fronts as well.

Paradoxically, if at the end of the negotiations between Israel and Hamas the blockade of Gaza is lifted, Erdogan can chalk up political points and claim that years-long Turkish pressure on Israel is what contributed to lifting it. Moreover, the lifting of the blockade will complete implementation of the demands that were a Turkish condition for full restoration of diplomatic relations with Israel. After Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s apology and consent to pay compensation, the blockade was the only remaining obstacle.

Thus, the question of whether Hamas won or lost in Gaza has become secondary, and even marginal, in light of the outlines of the map that is crystallizing in the region. This is a map in which old alliances are making way for smaller coalitions, and in which organizations, not states, are dictating foreign policy and even drawing the borders of national loyalties.

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