How a Great Power Falls Apart
Decline Is Invisible From the Inside
A steady stream of reports in recent weeks has suggested that Egypt is burying the hatchet with Hamas. The Washington Post saw an “unlikely alliance” between the two, Al-Monitor floated the prospect of “reconciliation,” and Haaretz suggested that Cairo is offering the group “another chance.” In short, the reports suggest the two sides are setting aside decades of animosity to confront the shared threat posed by Sinai Province, the affiliate of the Islamic State (ISIS) in the Sinai Peninsula. If it sounds like a stretch, it’s because it is.
The first notions of a budding Egypt–Hamas rapprochement appeared in March, when Cairo welcomed a rare delegation of Hamas political figures from the Gaza Strip, which the group controls. Egypt also reportedly began tamping down on anti-Hamas rhetoric in official media. The following month, Hamas deployed forces to Gaza’s border with Egypt in a bid to show Cairo that it is serious about stopping smuggling of arms to Sinai Peninsula fighters.
Egypt and Hamas have a long and acrimonious history, and contrary to reports of an imminent rapprochement, their relationship remains icy. Hamas has fostered a black-market tunnel economy in Gaza for nearly a decade, ever since Egypt and Israel blockaded the Strip after Hamas seized power there in 2007. That smuggling network, in turn, has simultaneously enriched and armed Sinai Province, whose insurgency has killed hundreds of Egyptian servicemen since the 2011 ouster of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. Since the military’s 2013 ouster of Mubarak’s Islamist successor, Mohamed Morsi, the military has waged a fierce campaign against the tunnels, destroying as many as 2,000 and creating a half-mile long “buffer zone” between Israel and Egypt. In this case, “buffer zone” is a euphemism for razing thousands of homes to make life difficult for would-be smugglers. In talks to end Israel’s 2014 war with Hamas, it was Cairo that took the strongest position against allowing Hamas to build a seaport to Gaza or easing the blockade on the Strip.
Moreover, Hamas is an acknowledged offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood, the Egyptian army’s decades-long nemesis, which it removed from power along with Morsi before jailing tens of thousands of its members. Egyptian officials have described the Brotherhood as the “mother” of all other extremist groups, and tend to view ISIS, Hamas, and the Muslim Brotherhood as three heads of the same terrorist beast. Cairo labels Hamas’ military wing a terrorist organization, and has accused it, in league with the Muslim Brotherhood, of the June 2015 assassination of its top prosecutor, Hisham Barakat.
One of the deepest veins of Egypt-Hamas tension is the latter’s relationship with Sinai Province. It is true that Hamas and ISIS have significant ideological differences. ISIS has declared Hamas an apostate group and has denounced its Brotherhood parent group for engaging in the political process rather than joining the global jihad. For its part, Hamas has slammed ISIS for distorting Islam, as when the group beheaded 21 Egyptian Christians last year on a Libyan beach.
Squeezed by Egypt on one side and Israel on the other, Hamas has striven to persuade Cairo that it means no harm.Still, the two groups have previously shown themselves willing to set aside ideology for the sake of their own financial and strategic gain. Hamas might well view ISIS as a threat to its rule in Gaza (Hamas forces regularly clamp down on Salafi preachers in the enclave), but it has no qualms about supporting ISIS’ efforts against the Egyptian military in Sinai. Indeed, if there is any rapprochement occurring across the Egypt-Gaza frontier, it is between Hamas and Sinai Province.
Arms smuggling has diminished in recent months—a result of Egypt’s relentless campaign against Hamas’ tunnels—but otherwise, the relationship between Hamas and Sinai Province is business as usual. Hamas has provided medical care to dozens of Sinai Province fighters in Gaza over the last ten months, and a number of former Hamas activists have found their way into the peninsula to join the ISIS affiliate. All of this proceeds under the watchful eye of Hamas’ military wing.
Hamas’ political leaders have refused to weigh in on the extent to which they support Sinai Province, thus allowing the military wing to handle the relationship (including by transferring anti-tank missiles) with almost full autonomy. Still, Hamas is playing with fire: the more it treats wounded ISIS fighters or hosts high-level ISIS commanders, the more support for the jihadist group is likely to rise within Hamas’ ranks. It will also face increased pressure from Egypt, which has responded to Hamas’ growing collusion with ISIS by clamping down on transit points between Gaza and Sinai. For example, Cairo has kept Rafah Crossing—Gaza’s one official entrance point to Egypt—largely closed this year, opening it for just six days over the past three months.
Squeezed by Egypt on one side and Israel on the other, Hamas has striven to persuade Cairo that it means no harm. Last month, Hamas officials claimed that the group had saved Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi from a plot hatched by the rival Palestinian movement Fatah (a bizarre claim given Egypt’s closeness to the latter). More recently, Hamas has doubled down on its insistence that its struggle is limited to fighting Israel, and has “nothing to do with Egypt.”
Beyond the talking points, however, old enmities die hard. Egypt and Hamas continue to have fundamentally divergent interests, ones that don’t lend themselves to quick fixes. With mutual animosity running this deep, rumors of any reconciliation between Egypt and Hamas are just that.