Egypt’s ‘shallow state’ and Hamas

Egypt’s banning of Hamas is unique throughout the history of Arab relationships, and it’s likely to backfire.

Two million Palestinians have been suffering because of Egypt's destruction of tunnels at the Rafah Crossing, writes Hroub [EPA]

Egypt’s current “deep state” seems to be “deep” only in security and bureaucracy, while its performance in politics and strategy continues to be “shallow”. The latest episode showcasing such shallowness – including the military’s “discovery” of a cure for AIDS and kidney diseases – is the regime’s ban on Hamas, declaring the movement’s activities and presence in Egypt illegal.

If Egypt’s generals have resurrected the tactics of Hosni Mubarak’s regime, including the recent appointment of a former protege as prime minister, these generals seem to lack some of the sophistication of Mubarak’s politics. Over the years, the tense relationship and mutual hatred between Mubarak and Hamas was more than obvious. But even then, Egypt showed more calculated domestic and regional politics and kept Hamas on board.

Political miscalculations

Even at its lowest point, when Hamas was accused of killing Egyptian soldiers across the Gaza/Egypt borders, Mubarak’s regime believed that sustaining links with the group was vital for Egypt’s regional role and politics, as well as for security considerations along Gaza borders and in the Sinai desert.

It is a basic tenet in politics that severing links with political actors is an extreme step that many countries should avoid. When these actors function in neighbouring countries, ignoring this tenet becomes an act of stupidity and comes at a high cost.

By comparison, Iran has maintained its links with Hamas despite the latter’s outrageous position, from Tehran’s perspective, regarding the Syrian revolution against Bashar al-Assad, Iran’s vital ally in the region.

A hasty and emotional decision to cut off ties with Hamas could satisfy momentary anger and sate politicians’ thirst for revenge, but it weighs little in political calculations.

Since they took power in July 2013, Egypt’s army generals have displayed all forms of enmity against the Palestinian group, and the Gaza Strip. By extension, two million Palestinians have been suffering because of Egypt’s destruction of tunnels at the Rafah Crossing. In their frantic search for scapegoats, the generals found a convenient case in Hamas and the “threat” it poses to Egyptian national security.

Egypt’s state-run media took the cue from the military and has launched a damning campaign against Hamas that eludes both sense and sensibility. This media discovered that Hamas is planning to occupy the Sinai desert and annex it to Gaza, conspiring to destroy Egypt’s army, inviting all sorts of militant and Jihadist groups and training them in Sinai, killing and kidnapping Egyptian soldiers and smuggling the killers into the Gaza Strip via tunnels and hiding Muslim Brotherhood leaders in Gaza and helping them to come back to power.

In a nutshell, Hamas has been projected in the political and media discourse of the ruling military elite in Cairo as nothing short of a regional superpower.

To be sure, Hamas itself is not entirely innocent of committing grave mistakes, with a catalogue of bad politics and hasty actions. And Hamas’ Brotherhood affiliation is no new discovery; rather it is well-known to everyone including governments that have had long and bloody conflicts with the Brotherhood.

Nevertheless, they have nurtured links with Hamas (such as the regimes of Bashar al-Assad and his father before him). It is no new discovery that Hamas used part of the tunnels to smuggle weapons into the Gaza Strip.

And it is no new discovery that some grey areas do exist where elements of extremist violent groups in Sinai may establish links with elements close to Hamas. 

Egypt can’t afford to boycott a party that rules the Gaza Strip, and enjoys large support among Palestinians. Until then, the amateurish politics of Egypt’s rulers may surprise us with more decisions of the sort, which are both laughable and tragic.

The wrong battle

Nevertheless, the best way to clear many grey areas with Hamas is to engage with them. In doing so, Hamas is wooed to moderate its politics and discourse. It can help safeguard the borders, instead of being part of the problem, with some members of the movement cooperating with radical groups such as the Organisation of the Supporters of Ansar al-Maqdis.

By banning Hamas and launching a “war on terror” against a group that is widely supported by considerable segments of Arabs and Muslims, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s Egypt is picking the wrong fight with the wrong party at the wrong time.

In fact, this ban and its broader “war” is an open invitation for extremist groups in Gaza and Sinai to further demonise the regime in Egypt, and continue their activities against Egyptian targets.

Lack of rational calculus have all led the military and judiciary to a decision that is not only contradictory in nature but also harmful to Egypt itself. The contradiction amplifies the confusion that already exists in the “legal case” against the ousted president Mohammad Morsi who is accused of “collaborating” with Hamas.

If contacting Hamas is a crime then a long list of officials, ministers and heads intelligence, prior to Morsi, should be brought to court as well.

Along with Morsi and other Muslim Brotherhood leaders, there were a number of Hamas members accused of helping the Brothers in breaking into prisons, and conduct illegal activities in Egypt. Some of the accused turned out to be either dead or already spending many years in Israeli jails.

Because of the absurdities surrounding the case against Morsi and charges of collaboration with Hamas there were some expectations that over the repeated postponement of his trial, the authorities may find a way to drop it out, or tone it down. Instead, the military regime digs the hole even deeper.

The political short-sightedness of this most recent move could also be seen because of the limitations that it imposes on Egyptian diplomacy. The role of Egypt within Palestinian politics, particularly on the reconciliation track between Fatah and Hamas has now become reduced.

Any future involvement by Egypt in reaching a Hamas-Israel military truce will also be limited, depriving Egypt from manifesting its diplomacy and expanding regional leverage. The same applies to the current peace talks between the Palestinians and Israel, which have entered a very critical phase.

By proscribing Hamas, Egypt needlessly limits its potential capacity to assume regional roles.

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. Eventually, any government in Cairo will revoke this decision, either formally or they’ll just ignore it.

Egypt can’t afford to boycott a party that rules the Gaza Strip, and enjoys large support among Palestinians. Until then, the amateurish politics of Egypt’s rulers may surprise us with more decisions of the sort, which are both laughable and tragic.

Khaled Hroub is Professor of Middle Eastern Studies and Arab Media Studies at Northwestern University/Qatar, and a senior research fellow at the Centre of Islamic Studies of the University of Cambridge.