Hamas left Egypt with no choice

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The Palestinian group had to be designated a terrorist organisation after it morphed from a liberation movement to a deadly armed insurgent.

An Egyptian court’s decision to list the Palestinian group Hamas a terrorist organisation raises questions on the future of Egypt’s relations with the Gaza Strip as well as its broader role in ongoing peace negotiations.

But what is sure is the court had plenty of evidence to find Hamas guilty and to support the charge of Hamas being largely behind an insurgency in northern Sinai and beyond. According to the judge, Hamas has committed acts of sabotage, assassinations and the killing of innocent civilians and members of the armed forces and police in Egypt. A number of Hamas members have been among the defendants in two of the ongoing trials — espionage and jailbreak — of deposed Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi, a leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, an organisation which itself was designated by Cairo as a terrorist organisation in 2013, and which is the granddaddy of all current Islamist militant extremist organisations around the globe, including Hamas.

What Hamas’ new designation immediately entails is a freeze of all assets and property belonging to the movement in Egypt and the arrest of any member who is part of the group.

What is not certain is how the relationship will play out, seeing that Egypt has not only been the main mediator in Palestinian-Israeli peace talks, but is the main mediator in the Palestinian reconciliation negotiations between Hamas and the PLO.

The category that Egypt has placed Hamas in will affect both sides, but will hurt Hamas more than it will Egypt. Hamas claims the decision “will have no influence on the movement” but that is not so. The move has created a great deal of anxiety in Gaza; near panic, in fact. Hamas spokesmen have held demonstrations in the Strip against the court’s decision. One leading Hamas figure demanded the intervention of Saudi King Salman and Arab League chief Al-Araby to revoke the verdict. Leading Hamas member Ismail Haneya said Palestinians have been in touch with Egypt to discuss the possible consequences of the decision. After the verdict, a delegation led by Palestinian Islamic Jihad visited Cairo to discuss Egypt-Hamas relations, the broader future of Palestinian-Egyptian relations, the situation in Gaza with the continued closure of the Rafah border, as well as Egypt’s role in inter-Palestinian reconciliation negotiations.

There have been no such protestations in Egypt because relations with Hamas steadily declined since Morsi’s ouster. Since his departure, Hamas has been critical of the current regime, and has in several situations called for Morsi’s return as the “legitimate leader of Egypt”, even though Egypt has only one legitimate leader and it’s definitely not Morsi.

Egypt had no other choice but to label Hamas a terrorist organisation although it is not a decision without political risks. If Hamas has been affected, so too, the role of Egypt within Palestinian politics, particularly on the reconciliation track between Fatah and Hamas, has now been reduced. Any future involvement by Egypt in reaching a Hamas-Israel military truce will also be limited, depriving Egypt of manifesting its diplomacy and expanding regional leverage. The same applies to whatever peace talks still exist between the Palestinians and Israel. By proscribing Hamas, Egypt limits its potential capacity to assume its historical regional role.

Again, though, Hamas did not help make Egypt’s court decision a very difficult one, particularly vis-a-vis the Rafah Crossing. There were those in Hamas who had hoped in recent months that the Egyptians would open up the crossing with Gaza, particularly following last summer’s Hamas-Israeli war, but this will not now happen as long as Hamas controls the Gazan side of the crossings. Egypt’s curbs on movement through its crossing with the Gaza Strip is a security decision that had to be taken, even if it had to cut off some imports of medicine and aid to the impoverished coastal enclave. The cut allowed Hamas, which rules Gaza, to call the closure a crime against humanity. It is not. Security concerns dictate the status of the crossing which, in fact, is still regularly opened for humanitarian reasons, such as for patients seeking treatment.

Egypt is the only exit for Gaza to the outer world. Rafah is crucial because Egypt controls Gaza’s only border crossing not controlled by Israel. However, the crossing had to be more or less sealed because Hamas had been inviting all sorts of militant and Jihadist groups and training them in Sinai, kidnapping and killing Egyptian soldiers and police forces and smuggling the killers into the Gaza Strip via tunnels and harbouring Muslim Brotherhood leaders in Gaza.

Try as it might, Cairo was not able to persuade Hamas to stop its machinations. Egyptian intelligence has more than once demanded that Hamas hand over terror suspects, stop the smuggling via underground tunnels, and stop providing refuge for Sinai terrorists. Hamas has not responded.

Egypt’s decision to impose a ban on the activities of a Palestinian resistance group in the country is unique throughout the history of Arab relationships with Palestine. Some Hamas officials describe the Cairo court ruling as a blow to Egypt’s history of defending the Palestinian cause. That is not an accurate picture. Egypt fought wars with Israel for the Palestinian cause. Cairo has for many years played a central role in engineering ceasefires between Israel and Hamas, including the truce reached between the two sides in August that ended last year’s 50-day Israeli blitzkrieg on Gaza. And Egypt has consistently renewed calls for the lifting of the Israeli blockade – which is the real crime.

One Hamas leader in Gaza said the ruling means Egypt is now “joining the ranks of the enemy”, aka Israel. That is also not true. Egypt’s soldiers and police are falling by the day and bombs are going off in Cairo and elsewhere every which way, killing and maiming civilians along the way. This is a fight for survival and as such Egypt has declared war upon radicals whoever they are and wherever they may be. Egypt is battling Islamic State and its affiliates, who have butchered Egyptians in Libya and in Egypt proper, and combatting the Muslim Brotherhood and its affiliates who seek to topple the government by all violent means available. Note that the court ruling is a wider verdict than January’s censure of Hamas’ armed wing, Al-Qassam Brigades. The court made no distinction between a military wing and a political wing, between the sword and the pen. Both are guilty.

Hamas viewed Morsi’s rise to power in Egypt as a triumph that could have helped end Gaza’s economic and political isolation. But Morsi is gone and Hamas was supposed to look ahead by not forgetting its past. It had been hoped that Hamas would stick to the job it was founded for, a resistance group fighting for Palestinian freedom from Israeli occupation. Hamas has fought Israel in three major wars on Gaza over the past six years. The clashes killed thousands of Hamas fighters, the blood that men of resistance must often spill.

Hamas is a group of freedom fighters whose rifles and rockets should have been trained on Israel and no-one else.

Alaa Abdel-Ghani is an affiliate professor, Faculty of Journalism, American University in Cairo.