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Gaza after the military return in Egypt

When the Muslim Brotherhood came to power in Egypt in 2011, it was widely viewed as a huge boost for Hamas, the party in power in Gaza. The Brotherhood has long-standing political and ideological links to Hamas, providing support over the course of many years. By that token, the fall of Mohamed Morsi, the Brotherhood's prime minister in Egypt should be a disaster for Hamas.

Fatah, the rival Palestinian faction, certainly hopes so. Head of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas, was one of the first to congratulate the Egyptian people. The Jerusalem Post reports that senior Fatah officials are hoping that the 'revolution' against the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt will prompt a Palestinian uprising against Hamas in Gaza.

Since the army took over in Egypt earlier this month, Hamas has remained tight-lipped. Ismail Haniyeh, the prime minister of Gaza, did not address the matter directly, saying only: "We expect the Arab Spring cycle to continue until its objectives are obtained, including our own cause." He added that he was "not afraid".

Yet it is impossible to imagine that Hamas are not watching the situation across the border with growing anxiety about the potential loss of an ally. Its relations with the Egyptian army have not always been good. One of the key sticking points is the underground tunnels connecting Egypt's Sinai Peninsula to Gaza, the financial lifeline of Hamas. The army has ramped up efforts to block it. Meanwhile, the Rafah Border crossing – the only overland exit from Gaza – has mainly been closed since Morsi fell.

Egypt was one of Hamas's three main allies. The others, Turkey and Qatar, are both western allies and therefore always subject to change. The shared border with Egypt makes it a particularly valuable partner. A shift in attitude from the Egyptian regime could be disastrous. However, despite strong links between Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood, the situation was not ideal even before Morsi was ousted. For several months, Egyptian public opinion – driven by the media – has been turning against the Gazan group.

There were tensions from the outset. Hamas had high expectations of Morsi's rule, and repeatedly pushed for the Rafah Border crossing to be opened for trade rather than just individuals, and for an Egyptian-Palestinian free trade zone to be established. They got neither. Things escalated after 16 Egyptian soldiers were shot by unidentified gunmen in August 2012. The gunmen, who attacked a military outpost, had reportedly entered from Gaza through the tunnels. This ramped up tensions between Hamas and the Egyptian army. Action was taken to destroy the network of tunnels – demonstrating that the tunnels were contentious long before Morsi was ousted.

In the weeks leading up to the military coup, Egypt's own political and economic problems were taking hold, with severe fuel shortages and electricity black-outs. Some media outlets blamed the fuel shortage on the network of tunnels, saying that heavily subsidised petrol was being smuggled out of Egypt and into Gaza, which remains subject to an Israeli blockade. Al-Jazeera English quotes Mohamed Goma'a of the Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies: "During Morsi's one-year rule, Hamas bore the blame for many of his blunders and had attained massive losses in the Egyptian public opinion." Over the last two years, Morsi's critics have accused Hamas of meddling in Egypt's domestic affairs.

However, despite these tensions, Morsi continued to provide political support to Hamas. Egypt hosted the group's internal elections earlier this year, and at least one senior Hamas figure has visited Cairo. Analysts note that although things were not always perfect and Hamas did not get all its demands, the two groups never did anything to harm the other's interests. It has been suggested that the Brotherhood gave funding to Hamas through private channels, to avoid angering America.

Writing on the CNN website, Jonathan Schanzer argues: "For Hamas now, the problem is less about the Egyptian army's wrath or the rapid unravelling of Morsi, and more about the overall beating that the Muslim Brotherhood brand just took." He says that the Muslim Brotherhood sets the tone for other regional Islamist movements, including Hamas, and it must now decide whether to revert to its former role of Islamic opposition, or start to fight against the state.

But the practical concerns for Hamas must not be underestimated: it is an organisation which is dependent on foreign assistance, and a hostile government in Egypt could have devastating consequences for them.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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