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Is there an imminent thaw between Sisi and Hamas, or is it a coercive détente?

January 28, 2017 at 12:00 pm

The deputy head of Hamas’ political bureau, Ismail Haniyeh returns to Gaza , January 2017. [Mohammed Asad/middleeastmonitor]

Ever since the ouster of President Mohamed Morsi, Hamas has found itself in Egypt’s crosshairs. The regime of Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi has opted for a multifaceted retributive strategy toward the Hamas-run Gaza Strip.

Post-2013 coup, the state media began running an insidious propaganda campaign intended to demonise the Palestinians in Gaza in general and Hamas in particular. Palestinians have been accused systematically of interfering in Egypt’s affairs to instigate mayhem. They’ve also been blamed for raiding Egyptian prisons at the outbreak of 2011’s January 25 Revolution to free prisoners and perpetrate terrorist attacks in the Sinai Peninsula.

Brotherhood curse

Media outlets literally epitomised Gaza as the cosy cradle responsible for Egypt’s economic and political malaise, principally because it’s ruled by an offshoot of the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood. The latter is accused of working in tandem with external powers to destabilise Egypt.

Hamas has also been accused — again allegedly in league with the Brotherhood — of the assassination of Egyptian prosecutor Hisham Barakat, as well abetting Daesh-affiliated insurgents to orchestrate terror attacks in Cairo. This is at the time that Daesh itself accuses Hamas of sliding gradually into apostasy.

Thanks to this heinous black propaganda, Egyptians’ renowned fervour for the Palestinian cause has faded and their sympathy and solidarity with Gaza has waned significantly. In December, the Egyptian army filled the last of the border tunnels with sea water, causing them to collapse and making it impossible to dig any more in the future.

In such an inglorious era, Egypt has tightened its immoral blockade on the decrepit enclave and kept the Rafah border crossing closed to exacerbate the already dire humanitarian situation in the Gaza Strip.

Abrupt reshuffle

On Sunday, former Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh — now the deputy head of the group’s political bureau — stopped in Cairo on his way back from Qatar. It is believed that he discussed bilateral relations between Egypt and the movement with Egyptian intelligence officials. He was also expected to focus on the security situation on the border between Gaza and Egypt and, most importantly, that he would seek to find ways to end the illegal Gaza blockade.

In recent months, Egypt has sporadically kept the Rafah crossing open for longer than usual, and allowed a greater number of Palestinian residents to cross the border. There are reports that it is considering a host of economic initiatives, including a free trade zone, to recover the economic malaise in both the Gaza Strip and the contiguous Sinai Peninsula.

At the invitation of Al-Ahram newspaper, Egypt’s semi-official and largest news organisation, a Palestinian media delegation went in Cairo to participate in workshops about the situation in their homeland. Recent developments amount to the easing of part of the Egyptian blockade on its neighbouring enclave.

Such moves by the Egyptian regime with regards to the Palestinians in Gaza are certainly not an extempore strategy. Nor do they stem from any neoteric love for Hamas in Cairo. So what has triggered Egypt’s strategy reshuffle?

Egypt’s indispensable sway over Hamas

The international community, including Israel, are keen on Egypt’s unrivalled role as a broker in Gaza-Israel conflict. In any looming deal between Hamas and Israel, Egypt is expected take the lead to impede Turkey’s mounting influence in the region. Cairo is fuming over that increasing influence, especially in the aftermath of Turkey’s agreement with Israel. The government in Ankara has exerted a colossal effort to alleviate the protracted embargo and allow Turkish aid into the besieged enclave.

A couple of months ago, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met with Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry in Jerusalem, where the latter pledged to put more pressure on the Palestinians to reinvigorate the moribund Israel-Palestine peace process. Most importantly, Netanyahu asked for Cairo’s help in returning the Israeli soldiers, dead or alive, believed to be held by Hamas in Gaza.

Delusion of “strongman” stability

Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi markets himself relentlessly as an anchor of regional stability. It is claimed that he was the first international president to congratulate Donald Trump after his inauguration.

Last September, when Trump was simply a Republican presidential nominee, he held a bilateral meeting with the Egyptian president in New York. He expressed his strong support for Egypt’s war on terrorism and pledged to be a loyal friend, not merely an ally.

In the malevolent shadow of the crumbling Middle East and the awaited peril of new versions of Daesh, the West is desperately seeking functional autocrats who can force its decades-old policy of “favouring stability”, even if they crush dissent and democratic transformations.

As president-elect, Trump was disparaged roundly for the deficiency of his foreign policy know-how. However, his foreign policy team elucidates his standpoints toward the Middle East. He is more likely to bounce back into alliances with regional “strongmen”; Sisi is one of them, whereas Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas is most probably not. That’s why Egypt bets on another regional protégé who conforms to the Trump idea of someone he can work with. Mohammed Dahlan, the former high-ranking Fatah official who has become a staunch political opponent of Abbas, is believed to be Egypt’s man to tame Hamas in the Gaza Strip.

It is clear that the imminent rapprochement between Egypt and Hamas is, among other factors, due to the efforts of Dahlan. Hamas could be siphoned-off as a tool to apply pressure against West Bank-based Abbas, whose ties with Cairo have deteriorated.

Egypt and Hamas have an indisputable rancorous record of icy relationships. Conventional wisdom says old enmities die hard. With their divergent stances, the relationship between Egypt and Hamas won’t lend itself to quick fixes. So are we witnessing a thaw, or a degree of coercive détente?

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