Hamas’s shift to Tehran rings alarms in Cairo
The strengthening relationship between Hamas and Tehran has set off alarms in Cairo and threatens a rapprochement between the Egyptian government and the Palestinian group.
“Improving relations between Hamas and the Islamic Republic are a direct threat to our national security,” said Samir Ghattas, a member of the Egyptian parliament.
“Most of the arms that reach Hamas in Gaza enter the blockaded [Gaza] Strip through smuggling tunnels in Sinai, even as the Egyptian Army has been working hard to demolish these tunnels,” said Ghattas, who also heads the Middle East Forum for Strategic Studies.
Relations between Hamas and Tehran were returning to normal after a three-year lull. A delegation from the Palestinian movement visited Tehran in August to attend the swearing-in ceremony of Iranian President Hassan Rohani.
Hamas leader Yahya Sinwar, in late August at his first media briefing, said that relations between Iran and his movement were “excellent.” Sinwar said Iranian support of Hamas was “strategic” and that the Islamic Republic offered funds, arms and training to the fighters of al-Qassam Brigades, Hamas’s military wing.
This could be bad news for Cairo, which has been trying to contain Hamas and recently reached a political reconciliation with the Palestinian group over several issues, including border security.
Relations suffered after the ouster of Egyptian President Muhammad Morsi, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, in July 2013 angered Hamas, an ideological offshoot of the group.
Cairo accused Hamas of aiding Islamic State (ISIS) militants fighting the Egyptian Army in Sinai and operating a network of tunnels between Sinai and Gaza that has enabled arms and militants to be smuggled across the border.
“These accusations are not hot air but are based on the real actions of the Palestinian movement on the ground,” Ghattas said.
Hamas accused Egypt of contributing to its blockade by sealing off the Rafah Border Crossing.
In July, Cairo tried to get the Palestinian movement to strengthen security on the Sinai border, prevent ISIS militants from hiding in Gaza and provide information about militants in the Sinai.
After Hamas beefed up security on the border, Egypt sent fuel shipments to Gaza for the operation of electricity plants. Egypt was said to be planning a permanent reopening of the border crossing with Gaza, which could dramatically alter conditions in the Palestinian enclave.
However, improving relations between Hamas and Iran threatens to slow any rapprochement with Cairo, experts said.
“The new Hamas leadership will be sacrificing this improvement in relations with Egypt by edging closer to Tehran,” warned Hassan Nafaa, a professor of political science at Cairo University. “Egypt has pledged to work to alleviate the Gaza blockade and has started taking measures to do this.”
The Hamas shift towards Tehran comes as its main Arab backer, Qatar, deals with a boycott by four Arab countries, including Egypt, for allegedly funding terrorism. Cairo had hoped the actions, which are also being enforced by Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, would push Hamas to improve relations with Egypt, not push it into the arms of Tehran.
Egypt, a predominantly Sunni country, has not officially commented on the Hamas-Iran détente. Analysts in Egypt, however, warned that Cairo is unlikely to just accept Hamas-Tehran rapprochement, particularly if it could have a detrimental effect on national security.
“Egypt can easily reconsider the security arrangements it agreed with Hamas,” said Ammar Ali Hassan, an Egyptian political analyst at the Emirates Centre for Strategic Studies and Research. “It can also reconsider the incentives it offered the Palestinian movement, including the fuel shipments and the potential reopening of the Rafah Crossing.”
Amr Emam is a Cairo-based journalist. He has contributed to the New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle and the UN news site IRIN.
This article was originally published in The Arab Weekly.