by Benedetta Berti and Zack Gold
Following the 2011 revolution that toppled long-time authoritarian leader Hosni Mubarak, the rise to power and international prominence of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood appeared to provide an opening for the Palestinian Hamas as well. Prior to Mubarak’s fall, Hamas’ international and regional standing was low, despite its 2006 victory in the Palestinian legislative elections. Hamas suffered further following its takeover of the Gaza Strip in 2007, with the group losing additional regional support and relying increasingly on Syria and Iran.
However, the Arab Awakening provided a chance to alter Hamas’ situation. Not only was political Islam on the ascent in neighboring Egypt and Tunisia, but the electoral gains of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood—with which Hamas shares deep historical ties—had even been embraced by the West. These factors gave Hamas the chance to strengthen its alliance with rising powers like Qatar and Egypt, improving its international standing. Yet, recent regional developments, including the collapse of the Morsi-led government in Egypt, threaten to reverse both the temporary improvement in Hamas’ position and its ties with the Egyptian state.
Hamas embraced the possibility that the changes sweeping across the Arab world could bring the group a much needed additional layer of regional and international legitimacy. Over the past two years, Hamas cautiously but clearly repositioned itself as a result of the regional changes. First, the group substantially weakened its historical alliance with Syria’s Assad regime by refusing to take its side when anti-Assad protests initially broke out in Syria, and then by quietly relocating the headquarters of its political bureau away from Damascus.
Second, Hamas invested in strengthening its ties with post-Mubarak Egypt, interpreting the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood as a positive sign for the organization, due to the ideological, personal, and political ties between Hamas’ and the Brotherhood’s leaderships. Gaza-based Hamas leaders regularly visited Cairo, and Meshaal’s deputy Musa Abu Marzuq moved to the Egyptian capital from Damascus.
As a result of this strategic realignment, Hamas’ regional position and standing improved drastically. Yet now, a number of regional developments seem to once again threaten the group’s position. First and foremost, the removal earlier this month of Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi, and the collapse from power of the Muslim Brotherhood from which he hails, threatens to reverse the temporary improvement in ties between Hamas and the Egyptian state.
Indeed, since Morsi’s ouster, anti-Hamas sentiment in the Egyptian media and army has flared. The commander of the Third Army reportedly blamed Hamas for trying to smuggle rockets from Gaza to Cairo for use by the Muslim Brotherhood. The Egyptian army has signaled its intention to strengthen control over the border with Gaza, while stepping up its crack down on the underground tunnels between Gaza and Sinai. These developments have strengthened Gaza’s isolation, negatively affecting both its residents and the Hamas government. On July 21, Hamas’ Economic Minister Ala al-Rafati claimed the Gaza economy had lost $230 million because of tunnel closures since the anti-Morsi uprising began. What is more, the closures also result in a loss of revenue and weapons for the group’s Qassam Brigades, which—together with the rest of Hamas—benefit from taxation on the underground tunnel economy.
Additionally, the downfall of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt also means that Hamas will be increasingly more isolated at the regional level. The June leadership shift in Qatar, where Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani transferred power to his son, now-Emir Tamim bin Hamad, could affect the small emirate’s investments in Gaza—and in Hamas specifically—if the new leader decides that supporting Hamas is no longer in Qatar’s interest. The transition seems to indicate a retreat in Qatar’s foreign policy, and at least a partial stepping away from openly supporting Islamist parties across the region.
In response to these developments, Hamas has been regrouping and thinking very seriously about its organizational future. While some leaders of the organization, like Gaza-based Mahmud Al-Zahhar, seem to be rallying the group toward rekindling its relations with Iran, it seems unlikely that Hamas would be able to go back to its pre-2011 ties with Tehran or Damascus.
Instead, at the moment Hamas is in a precarious position, with no prominent regional ally (other than a weakened relationship with Iran). This situation is additionally complicated by the recent announcements regarding the resumption of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, which may further increase the group’s sense of marginalization—eased only by the low likelihood of such talks delivering concrete results on the ground.
Given the current situation, Hamas is operating in a crisis management mode, attempting to prevent escalations—be it with the new Egyptian government or with Israel—and to preserve its power and control in Gaza. As such, in the coming period, an isolated Hamas will likely continue to work to maintain quiet on Gaza’s borders. However, the possibility of violent outbursts should not be overlooked if such isolation threatens its rule.
About the Author
Benedetta Berti (MALD 2007, PhD 2011) is a research fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies, a lecturer at Tel Aviv University and the author of Armed Political Organizations. Zack Gold (MALD 2009) is a Washington, DC-based Middle East analyst focusing on U.S.-Egyptian relations.