The suspects in the murder of Hisham Barakat, Egypt’s chief prosecutor, who was killed in a car bombing last June, admitted that they are members of the Muslim Brotherhood. They also said they’d been divided into three groups, each with its own assignment – tracking, locating, and carrying out the murder.
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If convicted, they are expected to be sentenced to death. But until they are tried, they have buried the chance for improving relations between Egypt and Turkey, because according to the declaration of Egyptian Interior Minister Magdi Abdel Ghaffar, their handlers are Muslim Brotherhood operatives now living in Turkey, among them physician Yihye Musa, who was the Egyptian health minister’s spokesman during the period Mohamed Morsi was president.
More importantly, the suspects admitted that they were trained for six weeks by Hamas operatives in Gaza, thus strengthening Egypt’s claim that Hamas is a terror group. Therefore, anyone seeking to bring Hamas into its ranks, namely, Saudi Arabia, ought to reconsider the move carefully.
One cannot separate the intense publicity being given the case and the accusations against Hamas from the resolution of the Arab League Interior Ministers Council last week declaring Hezbollah a terror organization. In both cases we see how non-state organizations have the power to set the Arab agenda. Just as Saudi Arabia’s designation of Hezbollah as a terror organization forced most of the Gulf states to back that position, so Egypt regards its disclosure of Hamas’ involvement in the car bombing as a loyalty test.
Hamas only recently reported on contacts it is maintaining with the Egyptian government to improve its ties with Cairo, to bring about the opening of the Rafah crossing and breathe new life into the project to rehabilitate Gaza that Egypt signed onto after Operation Protective Edge. Egypt hasn’t been in any rush to implement the decisions of the council of donor countries and most of the building materials reaching Gaza have actually come from Israel. Moreover, Egypt hasn’t stopped waging war against Hamas; it has destroyed most of its tunnels and created a more than one-kilometer demilitarized zone between it and the Gaza Strip.
But this is not just a campaign between Egypt and Hamas, but between Egypt and the Muslim Brotherhood. Hamas has turned into a political football in the hands of Saudi Arabia and Iran, each of which is seeking to embrace it. Saudi Arabia needs Hamas to complete the Sunni Muslim coalition that it has ostensibly set up to fight the Islamic State, but is actually meant to serve as a protective wall against the spread of Iranian influence. Iran, for its part, is seeking to bring Hamas under its influence to undermine Saudi Arabia’s ambitions.
Egypt plays a central role in this power struggle. President Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi is suspicious of Saudi Arabia’s overtures to the Muslim Brotherhood, and by the alliance between the two in the war in Yemen. The Egyptian leader believes this Saudi policy only strengthens the movement upon which he declared all-out war three years ago. Nor do Egypt and Saudi Arabia agree on a policy regarding Syrian President Bashar Assad. While Saudi Arabia is demanding Assad’s removal before any diplomatic process begins, Sissi believes Assad could be part of the solution. What’s more, Sissi and Assad see eye-to-eye on the battle against the Muslim Brotherhood. Further afield, Egypt is far from pleased with the improving ties between Saudi Arabia and Turkey (and between Israel and Turkey), and so far he’s rebuffed Saudi efforts to help him reconcile with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who constantly criticizes Sissi and describes him as someone who seized power in Egypt by force.
Exposing the connections of the suspects in Barakat’s murder allows Egypt to take its struggle with Turkey to the international legal arena. It has already asked Interpol to locate and extradite to Egypt those Muslim Brotherhood operatives involved in the case. This means Turkey will be required to obey an international order that it won’t necessarily hurry to fulfill. At the same time, the case makes it clear to Saudi Arabia that it will have a hard time with its two contradictory policies: Bringing Hamas closer, while also promising to toe Egypt’s diplomatic line, especially with regard to Iran and Hezbollah.
Israel is also liable to be involved in this thicket. If a few weeks ago Egypt asked to “understand” the substance of the rapprochement between Israel and Turkey and expressed its reservations, now it has grounds to demand that Israel halt the process of reconciliation. Just as Israel is demanding that Turkey remove all Hamas operatives from its soil, Egypt wants Israel to see its demand to extradite Muslim Brotherhood operatives in Turkey in the same light.
For the 1.8 million people in Gaza who hoped that Turkey would soon be able to help rebuild their homes this is bad news.