Post-Arab Spring regional realignment broke Hamas’ ties with Iran, now normalisation of relations between Egypt and Qatar could bring them back
There are recent indications that Egypt and Qatar are on the path to reconciliation. Qatar’s relations with a number of states in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region have been strained due to the small Gulf state’s support for Islamist movements, namely the Muslim Brotherhood. While meetings between Egyptian and Qatari diplomats may not lead to a full thawing of relations, normalisation does have major implications for the Palestinian Islamic Resistance Movement (known better by its Arabic acronym: Hamas).
The Syrian conflict precipitated a shifting of alliances in the MENA region. The Assad regime’s brutal crackdown on peaceful protesters, as well as Iranian support for military operations against a nascent rebellion in early-2012, led Hamas leadership to withdraw from its headquarters in Damascus and relocate to the Qatari capital of Doha.
Hamas envisioned an opportunity with the so-called “Arab Spring.” Long-marginalised Islamist political organisations mobilised with strong showings in post-revolutionary elections, heralding a shift toward Sunni Islamist rule in the region. Hamas viewed this new status quo as more favourable to its struggle for Palestinian liberation, especially compared to the Arab dictators who had made peace with Israel. In Tunisia, the Ennahda party won October 2011 parliamentary elections and in Egypt the Muslim Brotherhood — Hamas’ parent organisation — and the Salafist Hezb an-Nour won a plurality of votes in late-2011/early-2012 parliamentary elections. Additionally, Muslim Brotherhood candidate Mohammed Morsi claimed victory as Egypt’s first democratically-elected president in June 2012.
Hamas and Iran share a common stance vis-à-vis Israel despite being positioned on opposing sides of the oft-cited Sunni-Shi’ah divide of the Middle East. Hamas was the only non-Shi’ah member of the informal Iranian-led “Axis of Resistance” (which includes the Syrian regime and Lebanese Hezbollah — roughly aligning with King Abdullah of Jordan’s “Shi’ah crescent”). With the rise of Sunni Islamists throughout the region, Hamas was left to choose between its longstanding alliance with the Syrian regime, which “had supported it strongly when nearly all other Arab countries had shunned it,” on one hand, and “its connection to fellow Sunni Muslims who were victims of violence perpetuated by predominantly Alawite security forces and supporters” of the Syrian regime. In the end, Hamas chose to side with its fellow Sunnis, likely fearing that maintaining an alliance with the regime of Bashar al-Assad would threaten the group’s legitimacy with the Sunni majority of the Arab world.
Likewise, by Hamas’ calculations, shifting away from Damascus and Tehran toward states now friendly toward, or led by, the Muslim Brotherhood (namely Egypt, Tunisia, Turkey and Qatar) the group would be able to shed its isolation in the Gaza Strip through alliances with influential states that enjoyed relatively good relations with the West.
Hamas’ calculations, however, would prove wrong as the Egyptian government under Morsi continued the policy of destroying tunnels under the Rafah border (which provides Hamas with weapons to continue its “resistance” operations against Israel, as well as important survival goods like fuel, food and building supplies for Gaza’s blockaded population).
Furthermore, Islamist leadership in both Tunisia and Egypt faltered. A political crisis in the summer of 2013 fueled by the assassination of two secular politicians led many Tunisians to blame Ennahda for failing to reign in radical Islamists, leading the party to resign from government. After recent elections, the secular Nidaa Tounes party now controls both the parliament and the presidency.
In Egypt, a power grab by President Morsi and mismanagement by the ruling Muslim Brotherhood led to a popular military coup in July 2013, returning Egypt to authoritarian rule. Since then, thousands more smuggling tunnels have been destroyed and Muslim Brotherhood leaders have been arrested and charged by the authorities.
With regard to Qatar, the rich Gulf state has come under criticism from its Western allies for its funding and facilitation of Islamist extremists in the region (especially in Syria). This issue created a diplomatic crisis between Qatar and its Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) neighbours, isolating Doha and limiting its influence in the region. Saudi Arabia, the most powerful and wealthy of the GCC member states, has been a staunch supporter of the regime of President Abdel Fatah al-Sisi in Egypt, supplying the country with billions of dollars worth of aid following the coup amid fears that the United States would freeze its (mostly military) aid until a democratically-elected government was reinstated. Saudi Arabia also happens to be a fervent opponent of the Muslim Brotherhood organisation that Qatar supports and the new Egyptian regime continues to repress. While the Palestinian issue may unite Arab states, it has not necessarily meant support for the methods deployed by Hamas. Stability is the priority of most regimes in the region, Qatari support for Hamas, which has engaged in three armed conflicts with Israel since 2008, is not viewed favourably by states committed to the Arab peace initiative (spearheaded by Saudi Arabia).
The diplomatic rift between Qatar and its fellow GCC members came to an end in mid-November and it is likely that Saudi influence has prompted the recent moves towards Egyptian-Qatari rapprochement. This may spell the end to Qatar’s stance as the leading ally of Hamas in the region.
While Israel may be hopeful that this development will restrain Hamas, it seems to be no coincidence that Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal is expected to visit Tehran in the near future, with one Iranian diplomat stressing that relations between the two parties have never soured. After 50 days of rocket fire in July and August 2014 during Israel’s Operation Protective Edge, Hamas’ weapons capabilities were greatly reduced, partially due to Israeli military operations (in addition to firing rockets at a faster pace than operatives can produce). After this, and due to the closure of the Rafah smuggling tunnels, Hamas is in need of a strong ally, committed to fighting Israel, with a proven record of supplying the group with weapons. If both Egypt and Saudi Arabia are able to contain Qatari support for Muslim Brotherhood — and Hamas specifically — there is a distinct possibility that Hamas’ leadership in the Gaza Strip will seek out its old “Axis of Resistance” ally and rebuild its ties with Tehran.
In order to avoid this scenario and garner positive influence over Hamas as a result of improving ties with the group’s leading ally, Egypt must demonstrate support to the Palestinians of the Gaza Strip. Permanently opening the Rafah border crossing is a start, as is assisting in establishing a viable port and airport in the territory. While these confidence-building measures would not fully alleviate Israel’s blockade on Gaza, it would show Egyptian commitment to alleviating — rather than exacerbating — the problem (as well as end Hamas and Gaza’s reliance on unregulated smuggling tunnels).
Kevin Moore holds an MSc in Arab World Studies from the University of Edinburgh.Follow @kevinjm89