Tests and contests: Hamas without Syria

The political dynamics of Hamas are shifting as it seeks to reconcile its geopolitical power base away from Syria.

Hamas is seeking to readapt to a changing geopolitical climate in the wake of the Arab Spring [GALLO/GETTY]

Exeter, United Kingdom – As far as political pluralism goes, Hamas has entered a phase of creative tension. While this may not be new, it is today becoming more obviously conspicuous. The reason? Literally, Hamas – the Palestinian resistance movement – populates an immaterial state (of mind) – a state beyond the physical, as it were.

Thus, Hamas finds itself framing, reframing and regulating its polemics in pursuit of its much delayed project of physical territorial integrity. To this end, the tests and contests between elite control, guidance and even the usual veil of secrecy, lurk throughout the society.

What are these tests and contests?

Whether viewed as a historical resistance movement or as a religio-political organisation, Hamas and its politics should be interpreted according to: Which leaders are publicly active and where they are located in Hamas’ unfixed geography.

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The first is a question regarding hierarchy and power between a phalanx of charismatic leaders who fiercely compete over the ownership of Hamas’ historical mission and future direction.

The second is a spatial factor, a matter of the geography from which a given leader speaks or acts. At the core of this dynamic is the inside-outside tension. That is, their actors within Gaza, and those abroad. This important specificity explains the rigidity, resilience, versatility and plurality within Hamas. And today, this specificity is under stress.

The explanation for this is two-fold. Firstly, relaxation in the Gaza-Egypt border is rendering the formerly rigid boundaries between the inside and the outside relatively blurred. Secondly, post-Syria Hamas is trying to re-adjust and reinvent a political operation and apparatus that Syria hosted after Jordan ordered Hamas out of its territory following the Oslo Accords.

Post-Syria, post-modern

Hamas has thus far missed the bandwagon of modernism – as has Palestinian political society in general since the Nakbah (the “catastrophe” of 1948 that led to Palestinian de-territorialisation and dispossession at the hands of Israeli colonialism). They have, thus far, failed to enter the global Westphalian “habitat” with its territorial formalism, amongst other trappings.

Palestinian movements and global civil society, made up of a dispersed diaspora, have as a result – and unwittingly – been probably among the first converts to post-modernism. Territorial absence, polycentric political leadership and competing ideational templates of how to fix a cause that remains un-fixed have been the core features of this post-modernity.

Certainty is noted by its complete absence in all things Palestinian, especially the dream of statehood. Ideology has ceased to provide certainty in terms of how to frame the struggle for Palestine. Those Palestinian factions who once embraced Marx and Lenin have turned to the patronage of mortal political leaders, self-styled demi-gods, who could provide money and weapons. And those whose “god” was Abu Ammar (Yasser Arafat’s nom de guerre) are today left only with the skeleton of a “temple” devoid of ideology or a sense of purpose. In fact, perhaps the only certainty is the fluidity that has marked their cause.

The only arena where Hamas challenges “post-modernism” is in its stolid religiosity – it has cemented Palestine to one God. It has premised its struggle, the rationale for it, its core values and manifestos, and its continuity, on this religious basis. It is that continuity that equips Hamas with the kind of durability that other organisations – whose lesser mortal “gods” die or err – today find only in short supply.

Hamas vs Hamas

The uprising against Syria’s government has challenged Hamas. Again, it finds itself faced with straddling “territory” not of its own making, ownership, or control. Like Fatah and other Palestinian factions, Hamas leaders have no demarcated or recognised geography. Geography presents them with an absence-presence paradox. Indefinitely confined to statelessness, all they can seek is a fleeting territoriality, a base from where to organise, mobilise, and keep alive the dream of a free Palestine.

Thus, once again, post-Syria Hamas and its version of Palestine “travel” in search of a greener pasture from where they can continue to wage their political struggle, and a presence can be maintained while a Palestinian state continues its absence. This time around, luckily, they are carried by the current of the Arab Spring, opening new doors for Khaled Meshaal and the rest of the leadership. Tunis to Cairo, Doha to Amman, and Beirut to Khartoum are all multiple centres in a vast space where Hamas pitches camp temporarily.  

Post-Syria Hamas is undergoing tests that inevitably impose new contests of adaptation to the new realities on the ground: Dispersed de-territorialisation, multi-vocal and diverse leadership, and dispersed constituency. 

Hamas’ leadership and political and diverse civil societies have historically endured the tests of statelessness and geographical permanence through dispersion, not concentration. They have maintained existence, if that is possible at all, within the “void” – not firm and fixed political geography. It is in the cracks between absence-presence and between the inside and the outside that they play out their politics.

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Inventing and reinventing

The prisoners (the quintessential example of the absent-present actor), the diaspora, Gaza, the West Bank, the inside in its entirety and the outre-mer (such as Hamas foreign-based posts – especially Damascus, until recently) all invent and reinvented polity within these contradictions.

The tests and the contests of this reinvented politics in the bosom of contradictions have always presented Hamas’ project with perilous dimensions. However, the opportunities outweigh the perils: the resulting creative tension meant monopoly of power is not possible. Precisely, Hamas has reproduced its polity based on a division of labour. In that division, the Meshaal political bureau shared power with Gaza, and both referred to an extensive constituency, including in Israeli prisons.

Today, the contests multiply because the test faced by Hamas regards the collapse of the division of labour and divisive geography, both of which created a pilloried polity, specialised cadres and a pluralist civil society.

The old boundaries and their attendant fluidity are ceding today to accessibility (into and out of Gaza) and mobility that makes Ismail Haniyyah suddenly wearing Meshaal’s shoes, stepping in his territory. The obverse is true. This is a not a personal feud. This is hardcore politics, in which jostling for influence, leadership and contesting the framing, reframing and regulating of Hamas’ project is becoming fierce.

Note the relocation of leaders from the now vacated Damascus politburo, with Musa Abou Marzouq – owing to strong knowledge of and family connection with Egypt – settling in Cairo. Meshaal has become a roaming leader – based in Doha but now with access to Amman (facilitated by the Qatari Crown Prince Tamim), Cairo and Gaza. Muhammad Nazzal settled in Jordan, which gave the green light for the return of Hamas (after a four-hour meeting concluded between Meshaal and King Abdullah II in February, again with Prince Tamim’s mediation). Khalid Al-‘Alami returned to Gaza.

Mahmoud Al-Zahhar openly favours the return of all leaders to Gaza. Fixing Hamas to a single centre or geography – apart from security considerations – would weaken Hamas.

Tests and contests of Khartoum and Cairo

Hamas boasts a long list of charismatic leaders in which Meshaal and Haniyyah are two good examples. Mahmoud Al-Zahhar, Khalil al-Hayyah, Nizar ‘Awadallah are additional stalwarts; and there are many more second- and third-ranking upcoming stars.

The general meeting in Khartoum in late December 2011 gives an insight into the internal challenges faced by Hamas. It was historical in the sense that it was the first time in many years that the inside and the outre-mer met in a single place. Many Hamas leaders and cadres view this in a positive light as being a form of rahmah – divine mercy. These directions can be read as quasi political “traditions” or “cultures” within Hamas.

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Very generally, the inside is rigid in its political management, conditioned by the harsh milieu of a five-year embargo after a deadly war in December 2008 to January 2009. Gaza views itself as the new political centre and the pivot of the organisation’s polity. It has the numbers, the guns, the constituency and a record of sacrifices. Al-Zahhar alone lost two of his sons in the Israeli bombing of the Strip in 2008 to ’09. Political weight is more or less measured by the high political price paid by the local leadership, which includes kidnappings and imprisonment by Israel. 

The outre-mer tends towards resilience and even pragmatism – not denying that others in the inside can be pragmatic, such as Haniyyah, for instance. It has founded its legitimacy on being the foreign sounding board, flying the movement’s flag abroad and more importantly, procuring funds, networking and setting up a diplomatic corps for Hamas.

Just as Gaza may see the outre-mer as “living the good life” away from siege, hands-on military struggle and dealing with people’s problems on the ground, the outre-mer views Gaza as un-trained in the finesse of diplomacy and pragmatic political management.

It was therefore no surprise that discussion of Meshaal’s leadership of the politburo brought the Khartoum meeting to boiling point. It was at once the result of musarahah – or frank discussion – in search of a musalahah – the reconciling of two schools of politics within Hamas. Some of this reconciling required a second meeting in Cairo – especially between Haniyyah and Meshaal (the former admires the latter and views him as a mentor).

Unfolding fluidity

The departure from Syria was more than a geographical move. It is gradually forcing a shift in Hamas’ political management. Meshaal may have declared his intention not to run for a new term as politburo chief – extended twice without an electoral process – due to his cognizance of the winds of change from the Arab Spring. Alternation of power is the Arab Spring’s indelible “ink” on the scripting of a road-map by Hamas’ leaders, cadres and constituents post-Syria.

However, Meshaal was, possibly, unsettled by the shift in power dynamics from the outre-mer to the inside: Gaza being the centre of gravity as Egypt relaxes former restrictions from the Mubarak era on Hamas’ leaders. He may be searching for a new role or simply adjusting to change.

This is where Hamas is now. Hamas is mired in so much subjectivity – not a bad or good thing – so there’s no single or fixed “truth” in the scripting of Hamas’ direction post-Syria. Time, space and political actors collectively forge this subjectivity.

Between absence and presence and inside and outside Hamas, opens up margins for dissolution of tendencies towards singular forms and styles of management and leadership.

A space to be watched when I explain in a follow-up column how Hamas is pitted against Hamas when its fluidity and poly-centricity are subverted.

Dr Larbi Sadiki is a Senior Lecturer in Middle East Politics at the University of Exeter, and author of Arab Democratization: Elections without Democracy (Oxford University Press, 2009) and The Search for Arab Democracy: Discourses and Counter-Discourses (Columbia University Press, 2004).