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In a dramatic reversal, it was announced on 14 September 2017 that the Palestinian Islamist movement Hamas is to open an office in the Egyptian capital Cairo.
The announcement raised many eyebrows, not least because Hamas only narrowly avoided being listed as a terrorist organization by the Egyptian courts two years ago. Prior to that, it was accused of aiding terror groups waging war on the Egyptian army and police in northern Sinai, close to the Gaza Strip, which Hamas has controlled since it ousted its main political rival Fatah in 2007.
Furthermore, the apparent rapprochement between Egypt and Hamas was mid-wifed by none other than the Fatah strongman and former security chief Mohammed Dahlan, who was once Hamas’s sworn enemy. More on him later.
What brought about this dramatic volte-face? The answer lies in a complex web of factors that include a convergence of interests between Egypt and Hamas, the current dynamics of Palestinian politics and a realignment of regional geopolitics.
Egypt needed a reliable security partner on the Gazan side of border so that Cairo could more effectively fight the Islamist militants who use the territory to smuggle fighters and weapons to launch attacks on the Egyptian army and police. Cairo has never trusted Hamas because it is an off-shoot of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, which Egypt designated as a terrorist organization after the overthrow of the Islamist President Mohamed Morsi in 2013.
For its part, Hamas wanted Egypt to ease the de facto blockade of the enclave by reopening the Rafah border crossing. The crossing represents a lifeline for the two million Gazans, who can only travel via Egypt for medical treatment or to study abroad. The closure of the Rafah crossing – far more so than the closure of the border crossings controlled by Israel – has often been cited as one of the main reasons that life in the enclave has become intolerable.
Since the start of the terror campaign in northern Sinai in 2013, Egypt has further tightened its control of the Gazan border and destroyed hundreds of tunnels used for smuggling goods and weapons in and out of the territory. The smuggling business was a cornerstone of the Gazan economy.
Along with the Egyptians, Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas has also tightened the screws on Gaza, suspending salary payments to public sector officials and halting Gaza’s electricity supply, in an effort to force Hamas to relinquish control of the territory and end the deep rift between Fatah and Hamas. This has meant more hardships for Gazans, and with only a few hours of electricity a day, has affected the provision of water and waste treatment and made running hospitals virtually impossible. Another key factor in the dramatic turnaround is the dynamics of Palestinian politics themselves.
In May 2017, Hamas announced it was rewriting its charter, which was widely interpreted as an acceptance of the underlying conditions for peace with Israel (recognizing Israel and the 1967 borders), a move that brings Hamas closer to Fatah and paves the way for an eventual reconciliation between the two factions.
Also central to the Palestinian political scene is President Abbas’s advanced age and ailing health. Intense jostling for the successor of the Arafat generation that launched the Palestinian struggle for statehood more than half a century ago has already started.
Enter Mohammed Dahlan, the consummate wheeler-dealer of Palestinian politics: a longtime member in the Fatah cadre, former security chief and businessman who has accumulated a considerable and allegedly illgotten fortune estimated at tens of millions of dollars. Following Hamas’s takeover of the Gaza Strip, Dahlan fled to the West Bank, which he left in 2011 after falling out with Abbas.
Dahlan has since lived in the United Arab Emirates, from where he has been trying to relaunch his political career. This is where a regional power struggle comes into play.
The Emiratis, like the Egyptians, angered by Qatar’s support for Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood, have been pursuing a more assertive foreign policy to isolate the tiny Gulf state and undermine the influence of Islamists across the region. They have also been grooming Dahlan as a potential successor to Abbas.
With the enticement of Emirati petrodollars, a deal was struck whereby the beleaguered Hamas agreed to the return of a national unity government to Gaza, an outcome that has eluded mediators many times since Hamas and Fatah fought a brief civil war a decade ago. To prevent the prospect of Gaza falling back on Qatar or Iran, Abu Dhabi is reportedly paying some $15 million dollars a month to keep Gaza afloat.
By mid-September 2017, Hamas had announced that it was dissolving its administration to pave the way for a national unity government. Egypt – which has never recognized Hamas – has long wanted that reconciliation, because it trusts the PA security chiefs to control the Gazan border better than their Hamas counterparts.
The success of the deal may help relaunch Dahlan as a credible political figure and bring some calm to the restive Sinai region near the Gazan border. Dahlan may even be able to rebrand himself as a national saviour in Gaza, his birthplace and natural home. Yet it is far from certain that he will be able to outmanoeuvre other Fatah titans in the West Bank in the inevitable race to succeed Abbas.
Previous attempts to end the rift between Hamas and Fatah have floundered primarily on the question of who would control security and the border crossings in Gaza. Neither Egypt nor Israel want to see Hamas maintain its control. The question then is whether Hamas, which has created a veritable mini army in Gaza, will be prepared to dismantle its armed forces. Critics of the deal have already begun to wonder whether Hamas can do so without losing its credibility as the standard-bearer of the doctrine of armed struggle against Israel.
So far, the deal seems to be based not so much on a meeting of strategic interests but as marriage of convenience. In other words, it is a deal that could still unravel if the quicksand of alliances and short-term interests shift, as they often do in the Middle East.