Hamas vs. Fatah, vs. Egypt
If the new Egyptian leadership thinks it is possible to achieve lasting reconciliation between rival Palestinian factions Hamas and Fatah within the current political climate, it is likely to be disappointed. In the case of Gaza, the government of Mohamed Morsi should in fact pursue sensible policies free from the protracted and complex factional divide. If it subsists in its indecision, Israel and suspect extremist elements in the Sinai will likely intensify their efforts at derailing Egypt’s foreign policy agenda.
Palestinian factional division is unfortunate, but once placed within proper political context, it is fathomable. Both Fatah and Hamas are stuck in a power-struggle that is fed and sustained by regional and international parties.
Fatah, which controls the Palestinian Authority (PA) in the West Bank, is financially and politically bankrupt, and its will is dictated by and hostage to Israeli-US decisions. On the other hand, Hamas, which is fully aware of Fatah’s precarious position, is hardly immune to the region’s shifting political tides, pressures and financial manipulation.
Since the 2006 Hamas victory of the democratic elections in the Occupied Territories, regional and international players have heavily invested in preventing a major shift in Palestinian politics that could possibly lead to unity and reconciliation. Using political arm-twisting, financial threats and plots aimed at destabilizing and eventually overthrowing the elected Hamas government, the US, Israel, and some Arab parties used all of their creative juices to keep Palestinians apart. National unity in the occupied territories will likely lead to the reactivation of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), thus allowing Palestinians to speak in one voice and enact one common strategy. For Israel, its western and regional allies, such a possibility was and remains too sinister to entertain. In 2007, the official divide morphed into a mini-civil war, making the division not merely political, but geographic, with all sorts of peculiar dimensions. While unity between Hamas and Fatah is unachievable within the current political power plays, Palestinian unity that would redefine national priorities beyond ideology, clan and politics is still possible. Egypt too can help engender that process, once it is initiated by Palestinians themselves.
For the time being, each party is trying to extend the current political transition, hoping that the revolutionary influx, political mayhem and bloody conflicts throughout the Middle East region will yield a favorable political environment once it is all settled. Hamas in particular was quick to capitalize on the new political equation that is increasingly defining Egyptian politics. After all, Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood party was the principal root out from which Hamas sprung.
But politics are never that straight forward. Egypt’s new President Mohamed Morsi is not alone in redrawing the roadmap of his country’s foreign policy. With the US, international western financial institutions, and various Arab countries making generous offers in hopes to buy shares in Egypt’s new political assets, Morsi is wary of reaching out to Hamas in ways that could arouse suspicion.
The oddity is that most of Egypt’s new generous supporters are in fact the ones who sustained the rule of former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. One of Mubarak’s main tasks was of course, to keep Hamas at bay and Gaza besieged. His government was a close ally to President Mahmoud Abbas. The then Egyptian intelligence chief, Omar Suleiman, was closely linked to Israeli, western and various intelligence agencies. He was notorious in his incessant attempts at isolating Gaza in every possible way. The reverberations from the January 25, 2011 revolution are yet to be felt throughout the intricate intelligence, military and political infrastructure that ruled Egypt for decades.
The August 5, 2012 attack on an Egyptian military post in the Sinai which left 17 soldiers dead, was a reminder of how politically engendered security chaos is readily and ruthlessly available to distract from any attempts at mending the Palestinian-Egyptian rift. It is no accident that Sinai attacks are timed with impressive political precision. For example, a day or so before or after the arrival of a high-level Hamas delegation in Cairo. While Abbas is openly frustrated by repeated official Hamas visits to Egypt, Hamas is discouraged by the fact that trips to Cairo by its exiled leadership under Khaled Meshaal or the Gazan government under Ismail Haniyeh, are yet to translate into an Egyptian commitment to end the siege on Gaza. Hamas wants to replace a massive network of tunnels – Gaza’s main economic lifeline – dugout under the Egypt-Gaza border, with an economically viable alternative such as a free-trade zone. Fatah is worried by the political significance of Hamas’ maneuvers, arguing that such a move would entail recognition of Hamas as a legitimate Palestinian representative. This is a post that Fatah has long reserved for itself through its dominance of the PLO.
Morsi’s government is expected to part away with Mubarak’s notorious policies towards Palestinians. But it still lacks the experience to negotiate a clear foreign policy path in such a multifaceted milieu. It is caught in a bind, and language emanating from Egyptian officials for the need to achieve elusive Palestinian unity first, is a rehash of the Mubarak regime’s language. The status quo is likely to prevail if Egypt doesn’t make a decisive move to break away and forever end the siege on Gaza, motivated by Gaza’s urgent humanitarian needs and compelled by a truly independent foreign policy agenda. A continued siege on Gaza will stretch the state of instability under which Gaza and the Sinai have subsisted for years. This instability is also most inviting to those who prompt chaos in order to achieve political ends.
The contemptible matrix within which Palestinian factional politics operates is a reminder of Palestinian political dependency through most of the 1950’s and 60’s, prior to the rise of the PLO under a Palestinian leadership. The achievement of those decades is being quickly squandered as angry faction spokespersons battle it out on television screens to the embarrassment of millions of Palestinians the world over. However, Egypt doesn’t have to be held hostage to competing factional, regional and international agendas. Its actions or inaction is likely to affect the fate of 1.7 million Palestinians in Gaza, regardless of their factional leanings. Palestinians in Gaza, who suffered during the regime of Mubarak and who celebrated the triumph of Egypt’s revolution en masse, don’t expect charity or short-term solutions.
Short-term solutions to the crisis cannot sustain an impoverished area declared by the UN to be uninhabitable by the year 2020 and its water undrinkable by the year 2016. Gaza’s crisis is urgent and Egypt holds a primary key to its resolution. By giving Gaza a lasting lifeline and denying suspect elements from using the unresolved issue to score political points, the government of Mohamed Morsi would take a major first step towards constructing an assertive Egyptian foreign policy and ushering the return of the country to its leadership position of yesteryear.
The Sinai Factor, The Gaza Connection
Despite optimism, Egypt’s relations to Gaza are more precarious than previously thought, even under the leadership of a Muslim Brotherhood president. Recent violence in Sinai merely underscored that existing reality.
Two Toyota Land Cruisers filled with about 15 well-built gunmen in ski masks and all-black outfits appear seemingly out of nowhere. Behind them is vast, open desert. They approach a group of soldiers huddled around a simple meal as they prepare to break their Ramadan fast. The gunmen open fire, leaving the soldiers with no chance of retrieving their weapons. This was not an opening scene of a Hollywood action movie. The massacre actually took place at an Egyptian military post in northern Sinai on August 5. The description above was conveyed by a witness, Eissa Mohamed Salama, in a statement made to The Associated Press (Aug 8). The gunmen were well trained. Their overt confidence can only be explained by the fact that “one militant got out a camera and filmed the bodies of the soldiers”.
One is immediately baffled by this. Why would the masked militants wish to document the killings if they were about to embark on what can be considered a suicide mission in Israel? “The gunmen then approached the Israeli border,” with two vehicles, one reportedly a stolen Egyptian armored personnel carrier. The British Broadcasting Corp, citing Israeli officials, reported that one of the vehicles “exploded on the frontier”, while the other broke through the Israeli border, “travelled about 2 kilometers into Israel before being disabled by the Israeli air force” (BBC News Online, Aug 7). According to the BBC report, citing Israeli sources, there were about 35 gunmen in total, all clad in traditional Bedouin attire.
Their mission into Israel was suicidal, since, unlike in Sinai, they had nowhere to escape. But who would embark on such a logistically complex mission, document it on camera, and then fail to take responsibility for it? The brazen attack seemed to have little military wisdom, but it did possess a sinister political logic.
Only 48 hours before the attack, the media were awash with reports about the return of electricity in the Gaza Strip. The impoverished Strip’s generators have not run at full capacity for about six years, since Hamas was elected. The Israeli siege and subsequent wars killed and wounded thousands, but they failed to bend Gaza’s political will. For Gazans, the keyword to their survival in the face of Israel’s blockade was “Egypt”.
The Egyptian revolution carried a multitude of meanings for all sectors of Egyptian society, and the Middle East at large. For Palestinians in Gaza, it heralded the possibility of a lifeline. The nearly 1,000 tunnels dug to assist in Gaza’s survival would amount to nothing compared with a decisive Egyptian decision to end the siege by opening the Rafah border.
In fact, a decision was taking place in stages. In late July, a high-level Hamas delegation met in Cairo. All the stress and trepidation of the last 16 months seemed to have come to an end, as Hamas chief Khaled Mashaal, his deputy Musa Abu Marzouq and other members of the group’s politburo met with President Morsi. Egypt’s official news agency reported Morsi’s declarations of full support “for the Palestinian nation’s struggle to achieve its legitimate rights”. According to Reuters, Morsi’s top priority was achieving unity “between Hamas and Fatah, supplying Gaza with fuel and electricity and easing the restrictions on the border crossing between Gaza and Egypt”.
Juxtapose that scene – where a historical milestone has finally been reached – with an Agence France-Presse photo of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his defense minister, Ehud Barak, standing triumphantly next to a burned Egyptian vehicle that was reportedly stolen by the Sinai gunmen. The message here is that only Israel is serious about fighting terror. Israeli newspaper Haaretz’ accompanying article started with this revelation: “Israel shared some of the intelligence it received with the Egyptian army prior to the incident, but there is no evidence Egypt acted on the information.” This was meant to humiliate Egypt’s military.
Naturally, Israel blamed Gaza, even though there was, and still, no material evidence to back such accusations. Some in Egypt’s media jumped on the opportunity to blame Gaza for Egypt’s security problems in Sinai as well. The loudest among them were completely silent when, on August 18, 2011, Israel killed six Egyptian soldiers in Sinai.
Then, Israel carried out a series of strikes against Gaza, killing and wounding many, while claiming that Gaza was a source of attacks against Israeli civilians. Later the Israeli media dismissed the connection as flawed. No apologies for the Gaza deaths, of course, and AP, Reuters and others are still blaming Palestinians for the attack near Eilat last year. Then, Palestinian factions opted not to escalate to spare Egypt an unwanted conflict with Israel during a most sensitive transition.
None of that seems relevant now. Egypt is busy destroying the tunnels, continuing efforts that were funded by the US a few years ago. It also closed the Gaza-Egypt crossing, and is being “permitted” by Israel to use attack helicopters in Sinai to hunt for elusive terrorists. Within days, Gaza’s misfortunes were multiplied and once more Palestinians are pleading their case.
Israeli officials and analysts are, of course, beside themselves with anticipation. The opportunity is simply too great not to be utilized fully. Commenting in Egypt-based OnIslam, Abdelrahman Rashdan wrote that according to the Israeli intelligence scenario, “Iranians, Palestinians, Egyptians, and al-Qaeda operatives all moved from Lebanon to attack Egypt [and] Israel and defend Syria.”
In Western mainstream media, few asked who benefits from all of this – from once more isolating Gaza, shutting down the tunnels, severing Egyptian-Palestinian ties, embroiling the Egyptian military in a security nightmare in Sinai, and much more.
The Muslim Brotherhood website had an answer. It suggested that the incident “can be attributed to the Mossad”. True, some Western media reported the statement, but not with any degree of seriousness or due analysis. The BBC even offered its own context: “Conspiracy theories are popular across the Arab world,” ending the discussion with an Israeli dismissal of the accusation as “nonsense”. Case closed. But it shouldn’t be.
Before embarking on a wild goose chase in Sinai, urgent questions must be asked and answered. Haphazard action will only make things worse for Egypt, Palestine and Sinai’s long-neglected Bedouin population.
Egypt at Camp David Crossroad
Regardless of how Egypt’s new leadership may feel about the Palestinian cause (in terms of solidarity and sympathy) and Israel’s ambitions and future calculations, it is tied down with the Camp David agreement. Despite early assurances by Morsi regarding his ‘commitment to international treaties and agreements,’ one can already foretell a likely confrontation between Egypt and Israel.
A chaotic transition notwithstanding, a new, post-revolution Egypt is emerging. It is is more self-assertive, emphasizing issues of national dignity and respect. In fact, the world ‘Karama’ – dignity in Arabic – is now paramount in the budding discourse.
The key to understanding post-January 2011 Egypt is to appreciate the inferred but real transformation of the collective psyche or Egyptian society, one that is unequivocally challenging the denigrating stereotype of Egyptians as docile and submissive.
This would mean that neither President Morsi, the Muslim Brotherhood, the Salafis, the liberals nor even the generals of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) could steer Egypt in the sole direction of their own interests. Thus Morsi’s words in Tahrir Square on June 29 were by no means detached from a parallel reality of heightened expectations. In fact, no matter how fervent and ardently clear in his rhetoric, Morsi could barely keep up with what the chanting millions expected of him. He said, “I will endeavor to regain Egypt’s free will in its foreign relations. I will abolish all meanings of subordination to any power whatsoever. Egypt is free in all its actions and discourses.”
True, Morsi did state that Egypt would honor its international commitments, as it most likely will, and insinuated that Camp David is one of these. But the peace treaty with Israel is no ordinary ‘commitment’. It is an exceptional contract signed under immense pressures and sustained through constant bribes that were never ratified by a democratically-elected parliament. It was problematic from the start. The treaty alienated Egypt from its Arab surroundings and denied the country its historical role as a regional leader.
The whole endeavor was draped in secrecy and lack of clarity. For over 30 years, it defined an anomalous relationship between the US and Israel on one hand, and Egypt’s military and politically elites on the other. The Egyptian people were never a relevant component in the treaty, as is still the case. Those who challenged then President Anwar Sadat’s normalization with Israel were severely punished. Still, throughout the years, large segments of Egyptian society challenged Camp David. They were not challenging peace per se, but rather the undemocratic nature and humiliating conditions of the accords.
Sadat then claimed to represent the ‘Egyptian people.’ Of course he didn’t, but the US and Israel have historically perceived Arab nations through individual leaders. The rest simply existed but never mattered. Western countries quickly clamored to capitalize on the opportunity of ousting Egypt from the fight against Israel, generously endowing Sadat with perks, honors and funds. He was handed the Noble Peace Price in 1978, even before the treaty was officially signed in Washington. Sadat then saw himself as representing not only all Egyptians, but also the “great majority of the Arab people,’ claiming that he had responded to the “the hopes of mankind.” From a pro-Israeli Western viewpoint, he was not simply a ‘peacemaker,’ but, in the words of US evangelical preacher Pat Robertson, a ‘prince of peace’.
The mood in Israel was simply that of giddy anticipation. In 1978, Israel invaded parts of Lebanon, and shortly after peace was officiated with Egypt, it invaded the rest of the country, killing and wounding thousands of civilians. The war in Lebanon and the continued subjugation of occupied Palestinians were orchestrated by Likud leader Menachem Begin, previously the wanted head of the Irgun terror gang. But Begin was now a friend, a fellow-recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize, and a gracious host, who spoke profoundly of peace and friendship.
Camp David was never a peace treaty between two nations, but rather a political oddity sustained by billions of US taxpayers’ dollars. For decades, the question of Camp David was never truly settled. Israel accurately understood that to maintain the treaty, Egyptians would have to be forced into submission by a strong ruler, and the US understood that the ruler had to be fed with cash and other perks to remain content. Based on this understanding, Israel remained Mubarak’s most faithful ally until the very end. Just days before Morsi was sworn to power, the Jerusalem Post expressed this sentiment in its editorial: “With the junta maintaining a strong grip on power…relations between Egypt and Israel are more likely to remain stable than in a scenario where both the parliament and the presidential seat are controlled by Islamists.”
Israel is interested in maintaining the status quo with Egypt, which would help it to carry on with its colonial military schemes in Palestine and its aggressive policies in Lebanon and throughout the region. Egypt is unlikely to allow that reality to continue for much longer, particularly once the power struggle within Egypt is settled and a new political discourse is fully articulated.
Unable to truly appreciate the changing face of Egypt, US mainstream media is busying itself with neo-Orientalist discourses pertaining to secularists vs. Islamists and other wholesale generalizations. Such convenient dogmas completely ignore the fact that Egypt’s relationship to the Camp David treaty – and with Israel in general – will not be determined by a false dichotomy setting up bearded religious men against clean-shaven liberals, but by a new revolutionary mood that will continue to grip the country for years.
In Tahrir Square Morsi had proclaimed: “I emphasize the concept of national security in perspectives pertaining to the depths of Africa, the Arab World, the Muslim World and the rest of the world. Will not relinquish our rights; we will not relinquish the right of any Egyptian abroad. Our regime will drive our discourses in our foreign relations.” Egyptians would accept no less anyway, and Morsi’s promises are precisely what Mubarak withheld all these years. Per this roadmap, it is becoming clear that the new Egypt is potentially dangerous. That danger hardly stems from the religious leaning of the president or his political party, but from the very idea that Egypt’s national dignity – Karama – is compelling the country into a change of course in foreign policy.
Morsi’ mission is not easy: charting a morally-grounded and politically-sound long term foreign policy amidst Israel’s constant hostilities, Palestinian division and an odd legacy of ‘peace’ that was never truly delivered. Lack of experience is already apparent in the leadership of the ‘new Egypt’ but if intentions are sincere, Egypt is likely to find its way back, to a path of political independence, as an Arab country with clear and uncompromising set of priories.
Ramzy Baroud is an internationally-syndicated columnist and the editor ofPalestineChronicle.com. His latest book is My Father Was a Freedom Fighter: Gaza's Untold Story (Pluto Press, London). His website is www.ramzybaroud.net.