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Egypt warms to Hamas, but not allies yet

Gaza’s Islamist rulers are closer to the new government in Egypt than they could ever have been to Hosni Mubarak, but Cairo’s support for Hamas is not guaranteed.

Gaza's Islamist rulers are closer to the new government in Egypt than they could ever have been to Hosni Mubarak, but Cairo's support for Hamas is not guaranteed, report Bradley Hope and Hugh Naylor, Foreign Correspondents

CAIRO AND JERUSALEM // When Egypt provided a public platform last month for Ismail Haniyeh, the Hamas prime minister, it was seen as a more independent nation risking longtime ties with the United States and Israel to please its Islamist friends.

To many observers, Mr Haniyeh's speech at Al Azhar University in Cairo, declaring his support for Syrian rebels fighting to topple the regime of Bashar Al Assad, also signalled the break-up of the revolutionary axis stretching from Tehran to Gaza City, and a major shift in the politics of the Middle East.

That shift may indeed be under way, but Muslim Brotherhood officials suggest it could proceed far more haltingly and circuitously than first thought.

Khaled Al Qazzaz, the coordinator of foreign relations for the Freedom and Justice Party, the political arm of the Muslim Brotherhood, says Egypt will not take Hamas's side in the struggle among old rivals to form a unified Palestinian government.

"There were players in the previous regime that were biased towards one party," Mr Al Qazzaz said. "We will be a better mediator. We are collaborating with the different groups to help them have a unified voice."

Despite its ideological ties to Hamas, the Freedom and Justice Party will base its foreign relations decisions on Egypt's security, he said.

Hamas was founded in Gaza in 1987 as an offshoot of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood. "We are, of course, closer to Hamas because we are both parties with an Islamic reference and a similar political ideology," Mr Al Qazzaz said. "But when it comes to international politics, you have to take into consideration your own country's interest and other countries' interests."

Egypt, which shares a border with the Gaza Strip, has in the past isolated Hamas because of its ties to the Muslim Brotherhood.

Hosni Mubarak, Egypt's former president, actively helped Israel to impose the blockade on Gaza because of US pressure and because of his fear of Islamists. He was also one of the strongest supporters of Mahmoud Abbas, leader of Hamas's rivals Fatah.

But Egypt's position has steadily changed since the uprising last year that forced Mubarak to resign as president after nearly three decades of rule and set the country on a new democratic path. Moussa Abu Marzook, the deputy chairman of Hamas's political bureau, has been allowed to move to Cairo and the group has been given greater access to Egypt for meetings and speeches about the Palestinian cause.

Mr Haniyeh's speech at Al Azhar was an act of unprecedented activism on Egypt's territory that would have been unthinkable under Mubarak.

The success of the Freedom and Justice Party in the parliamentary elections - winning 47 per cent of the seats in the lower house and 59 per cent in the upper house - has been the major impetus to the changing relationship, said Samir Ghattas, the director of the Maqdis Centre for Political Studies in Gaza.

"Before and after the revolution, the file of the Palestinians has been in the hands of Egyptian intelligence," he said. "But the success of the Muslim Brotherhood in the elections has been the most important factor in the changes. Their political weight cannot be ignored."

Egypt's foreign policy is still in the hands of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (Scaf), which is in control of the cabinet during the transition to a new, elected government. That will change when a new constitution is drawn up in the coming months. There is a consensus among major political parties that parliament should have a greater role in foreign relations.

The Freedom and Justice Party's balanced approach to Palestine is already providing a serious test to Hamas's willingness to give up an armed struggle against Israel and reconcile with Fatah. The group appears to be hedging its alliances to avoid having to make concessions.

A top Hamas official told The National that Mr Haniyeh's speech was not meant to be a decisive break from the regime of Bashar Al Assad and that Hamas members had left Damascus because of the "security situation".

"He was only speaking about the right of the people," said Mahmoud Zahar, a prominent Hamas official. "But speaking about the people is totally different from supporting the opposition. We are not playing the game of meddling in Syria's internal affairs. People have understood Haniyeh's comments incorrectly - we are neutral."

He said Hamas was "not playing the game of switching from one axis to another, whether Iranian, Syrian or the Muslim Brotherhood", and the group was still receiving funding from Iran.

Mr Zahar's comments reflected the tensions within Hamas between Khaled Meshaal, the outgoing head of the political bureau who has sought to bring the group into the mainstream with concessions to Fatah and alliances with moderate-minded Islamist groups such as Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood, and the more hardline elements based in Gaza.

Those tensions spilt out again on Friday, when Mr Haniyeh blamed Egypt for Gaza's power crisis even after the Egyptian government said it would increase the supply of electricity and fuel.

"Is it reasonable that Gaza remains without electricity a year after the revolution in Egypt?" he said in his weekly address. "Is it reasonable that Gaza remains blockaded a year after the dismissal of the tyrant regime?"

In a particularly revealing comment about the changing regional dynamics, he said: "Some parties want to continue to pressure Gaza, Hamas and the government, believing they can get concessions. Neither electricity nor anything else will push Gaza's people to make any concession."

The Egyptian pressure on Hamas is for a moderate approach to dealing with Israel, according to Mamoun Abu Shahla, a Palestinian businessman in Gaza who played a central role in brokering the Hamas-Fatah reconciliation accord in May.

"The Brotherhood has been frank with Hamas and told them: 'You have to be reasonable and moderate, or else we will not support you. If you follow the policy of terror, we will break our relations with you'," he said. The Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood don't want to make enemies of the West and America, he said.

But some Israeli observers are sceptical of Egypt's moderating effect on Hamas unless it uses its power to force major changes on issues such as the recognition of Israel's right to exist, which Hamas refuses to accept.

"The question Israel is asking is how the improved ties with Egypt will translate into assistance for Hamas," said Ephraim Kam, deputy director of the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv. "Are they going to allow Hamas to smuggle arms into the Gaza Strip? What about militants in the Sinai?"

bhope@thenational.ae

hnaylor@thenational.ae

twitterFollow The National on @TheNationalUAE Bradley Hope on @bradleyhope & Hugh Naylor on @HughNaylor

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