After ousting President Morsi, Egypt’s military has put a clampdown on Hamas-led Gaza’s only connections to the outside world.
Hamas is reeling from the repercussions of the sudden ouster of Egypt’s President Mohamed Morsi and the downfall of his Muslim Brotherhood movement earlier this month.
While it seems unlikely, some have warned that the Palestinian Islamist group could face its own overthrow in Gaza, which it has ruled since its takeover of the coastal strip in 2007. Already, Morsi and the Brotherhood’s loss of power have severely weakened Hamas.
“Egypt provided a big support to Hamas in Gaza and sided with it against Fatah for the first time in the Palestinian arena,” said Oraib Rentawi, a Jordanian political analyst who has observed Hamas activity for the past 20 years. “Suddenly they find themselves without this huge support from the Arab world’s biggest country, Egypt.”
Founded as an offshoot of Egypt’s Brotherhood, Hamas received unprecedented support from Morsi and the Egyptian Brotherhood over the past year and now that is gone. The Egyptian army deposed Morsi on July 3, saying it acted in the name of millions of Egyptians who took to the streets to accuse the Brotherhood leader of distorting the democratic process and abusing his power.
The importance of Egypt’s Morsi and Brotherhood to Hamas
Soon, the army began its crackdown on goods being smuggled through Gaza’s tunnels. The underground channels between Egypt and Gaza have been an economic lifeline to the sanctions-hit enclave due to an Israeli-imposed siege on its 1.7 million people. But they have also been used to ferry weapons.
According to Britain’s Guardian newspaper, at the height of the black market trade through the tunnels Hamas gained an “income from taxes and permits of millions of dollars a month, estimated at 40 percent of the government’s revenue.” It’s believed that Egypt has closed or destroyed perhaps 80 percent of the tunnels along the 8.7 mile border.
A Gazan taxi driver, who gave his name as Mahmoud, said he and others were suffering in the territory from the abrupt halt in supplies from Egypt, particularly fuel, cement, and foodstuffs such as flour, sugar and rice.
A spokesperson for Gaza’s Ministry of Transportation said the inability to smuggle petroleum products through the tunnels has worsened the crisis for 70,000 drivers.
On Saturday, Egyptian authorities partially reopened its border with Gaza permitting “stranded patients, humanitarian cases and foreigners” to cross at Rafah four hours daily, according to Egypt’s official MENA news agency. Rafah is the enclave’s sole border crossing with the outside world.
But under Morsi, Cairo lifted restrictions on the movement of people and goods that Egypt’s deposed longstanding President Hosni Mubarak had strongly enforced — with U.S. and Israeli support. Mubarak had forced the then-illegal Muslim Brotherhood to operate underground for decades and maintained minimal contact with Hamas through its security chief and intelligence officers.
Morsi’s regime also allowed numerous foreign delegations to visit Gaza in support of lifting Hamas — designated by the U.S. and European Union as a terrorist organization — out of its international isolation. It provided a safe haven to senior Hamas officials, including Moussa Abu Marzouk.
But pressured by Washington and other Western allies, Morsi maintained Egypt’s treaty with Israel, which is anathema to Hamas.
Hamas drawn into Egypt’s internal dispute
Due to its close association with Morsi and the Brotherhood, Hamas has been sucked into Egypt’s domestic turbulence. “Hamas has become part of the internal dispute in Egypt,” said Rentawi. “For many, it’s a very close ally of the Morsi regime and unhappy with the alliance, they have accused Hamas of interfering in Egypt’s internal affairs.”
Egyptian public opinion has soured enormously towards Hamas. Critics say heavily subsidized fuel being smuggled out of the country to Gaza came at the detriment of the needs of ordinary Egyptians.
And the country’s media has accused Hamas of sending in operatives to support pro-Morsi demonstrators. It has claimed that Hamas members incite violence against those opposed to the Brotherhood leader and also carried out armed attacks on Egypt’s security and military personnel in the Sinai Peninsula.
Observers believe militants have exploited a security vacuum that opened up in the isolated Sinai after the 2011 uprising that toppled Mubarak. In May, seven Egyptian security men were abducted there and later released. The kidnappers claim to be part of Tawhid wal Jihad, a hardline group which espouses a more radical form of Islamism than the Brotherhood. It is blamed for bomb attacks on Sinai tourist resorts from 2004 to 2006.
Sinai’s militancy problem predates Mubarak’s ouster and has grown partly out of heavy-handed security crackdowns in the past and state neglect, analysts said.
“There are many groups operating in Sinai. I call this a weak corridor, an open desert area for trafficking and smuggling of drugs, weapons and jihadists bordering six countries,” said Rentawi. “Most are jihadist Salafists adopting al-Qaida ideologies and tactics. They have been using this weak area to attack Egypt, Jordan and Israel.”
But since Morsi was deposed, at least 12 Egyptian soldiers and several Christians have died in dozens of attacks for which there have been no claims of responsibility. Sinai residents blamed the attacks on Islamists angry over Morsi’s removal by the military. Some Egyptians claim Hamas involvement.
Rentawi ruled out official Hamas participation. “I received a phone call from Hamas’ Ismail Haniyeh, the Prime Minister of Gaza. He complained that Egypt says that Hamas is involved, but there is no concrete information about any single person from Hamas targeting Egyptian security and army personnel.”
While Rentawi believes that Hamas confines itself to the fight against Israel, some believe that Hamas members have taken up arms on the side of Syrian rebels fighting to unseat Syria’s President Bashar Assad. Hamas has said it is not responsible for individuals fighting on their own accord.
Hamas’ tenuous position
But the group’s earlier break with Damascus over the Assad regime’s brutal crackdown both on Palestinian refugees inside Syria and on anti-government protesters also significantly damaged its ties with one-time financial and military backer, Iran. It’s believed that Iran provided Hamas with up to $20 million a month to help pay the salaries of nearly half of 50,000 Gaza government employees, according to diplomatic sources. Tehran also supplied weapons, including rockets used against Israel.
The Lebanese militant group Hezbollah, which counts Iran as its major patron, also claims it encountered Hamas-affiliated Palestinians fighting recently in the strategic town of Qusair. Hezbollah said Syrian rebels there used tactics the Lebanese group had taught Hamas fighters in Gaza.
A key ally of the Assad government, Tehran substantially reduced Hamas financial support leaving it to scramble for help from Turkey and Qatar. Analysts believe Qatar’s financial backing looks more uncertain with the accession of Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani to the Gulf monarchy’s throne last month.
With “only two patrons left, and both Western allies that could be tempted to throw Hamas under the bus for greater financial or political incentives,” Hamas is in a very vulnerable position, warned Foundation for Defense of Democracies Vice President Jonathan Schanzer.
Meanwhile, three Tamarod (“Rebellion”) movements have emerged in Gaza and the West Bank in the aftermath of mass opposition demonstrations in Egypt. Tamarod was instrumental in galvanizing millions of Egyptians to take to the streets to demand Morsi’s ouster.
Hamas’ rival, the Palestinian Authority headed by President Mahmoud Abbas and other Fatah leaders, hailed Morsi’s downfall. “Now, it’s Gaza’s turn to get rid of the Muslim Brotherhood branch,” said one official in the West Bank, controlled by the PA.
Fatah spokesman Ahmed Assaf expressed hope that with Morsi out, Palestinians could end divisions among Hamas and Fatah.
A reconciliation deal widely supported by ordinary Palestinians calls for reuniting Gaza with the West Bank through national elections. Critics had accused Hamas of stalling on the pact in part due to its reluctance to give up control over lucrative businesses in Gaza.
Mohamed Goma’a of Cairo’s Al Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies has predicted that opposition to Hamas will likely grow.
“Hamas will have to tighten its security grip… They do not need to escalate matters at the time being,” he told Al Jazeera. “Hamas may even resort to sparking a third intifada [uprising against Israel] as a distraction away from the mounting pressure it faces,” Goma’a warned.