North Africa, West Asia

The Egyptian coup and Hamas

In the face of disinformation, both Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood need to redeem the 'Islamist' brand as a whole and re-establish the distinction between a radical and moderate Islamist.

Maged Mandour
30 September 2013

In the aftermath June 30, Hamas is finding itself embroiled in the Egyptian political debacle. Egyptian media as well as political elites are now accusing Hamas of being the mastermind behind the murder of protestors as well as the prison breaks during the January 2011 revolution. These accusations can easily be extended to hold Hamas, the “Third Party”, responsible for the massacres during the first transitional period when the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) ruled overtly.

Hamas is also accused of being part of an “international” Muslim Brotherhood organization; as a subordinate junior partner. This presumed connection was used as a platform to accuse the Muslim Brotherhood and President Morsi of having transnational rather than national loyalties. These range from Morsi “giving” Sinai to the Palestinians and sending fuel to the Gaza strip, which was then used as the reason for fuel shortages in Egypt. Needless to say, those accusations are based on dubious evidence at best and at times some are so outrageous that they could be mistaken for a bad joke; nevertheless they are picking up currency with Egyptian public opinion. It is sufficient to note that one of the criminal charges Morsi is currently facing is collaboration with Hamas.

The demonization of Hamas did not start with the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood to power; it started under the Mubarak regime with the break between Hamas and Fatah. When Hamas took control over the Gaza strip in 2007, as part of their internal power struggle with Fatah, Egypt clearly sided with Fatah and started the policy of blockading the strip. This policy reached new levels of severity with the start of operation Cast Lead at the end of 2008, when the Mubarak regime actively supported the Israeli government’s policies against the Gaza strip, and this is when Mubarak announced “Hamas should not be allowed to win this war”. This was accompanied with a campaign in the Egyptian press demonizing Hamas in order to create public support for the siege on Gaza. The accusations ranged from linking Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood, to an Iranian Shia plot to destroy the Egyptian state, to creating an image of Hamas as a quasi-medieval Taliban-like organization that suppressed women. However, at the time this policy of demonization did not work, and turned into one of the major rallying cries against the regime.

The picture has changed dramatically now; there is popular support for the siege of Gaza, which is at an all-time high, and the destruction of the tunnel networks that are essential for Gazans livelihoods. It is important to understand why this shift in Egyptian popular mood has occurred and its possible implications. Firstly, as already mentioned, Hamas is considered to be an organic extension of the Muslim Brotherhood. With amplified demonization of the Brotherhood and its labeling as a “terrorist” organization, it became relatively easy to associate Hamas with terrorism.

It is also worth noting that during the rule of the Brotherhood, Hamas was accused by elements of the Egyptian media of “militarily” supporting the Brotherhood by smuggling in weapons and personnel, an accusation that was never backed up by tangible evidence. This logic ignores the fact that Hamas is first and foremost a Palestinian movement with Palestinian aspirations, just like the Brotherhood in Egypt, which is an Egyptian rather than a transnational movement. Secondly, the violence in Sinai, directly and indirectly, is being blamed on Hamas and radical Palestinians. An example of these accusations was a statement made by the Egyptian military claiming to have found weapons branded with the logo of the Ezz-El Din El Qassam brigades. Again no physical evidence was produced to support such an allegation. Third, the demonization of Hamas has become much easier due since the backlash orchestrated against the Islamists across the region.

After the events of June 30, any differentiation between radical and moderate Islamists seems to have disappeared. The word “Islamist” has become a blanket term that covers different ideological strands; from the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt to the Al-Qaeda affiliated Jabhat El Nusra in Syria. The accusations of radicalism, violence, treason and holding anti-democratic ideals ignores the ideological cleavages that have always separated these movements and have sometimes pitted them one against the other. This, of course, makes it much easier to classify Hamas as a “terrorist” organization working against Egyptian national interests, thus justifying the continuation of the blockade of the Gaza strip and ignoring the continuous suffering of the Palestinians. This situation is reminiscent of the demonization of the Palestinians that took place after the Camp David accords, to sway Egyptian public opinion, where the Palestinians were portrayed as traitors that had sold their land to Zionist settlers and accordingly deserved their fate. 

This kind of demonization will have a number of implications, not only for the Palestinians, but also for Egypt’s regional role and the region as a whole. First, under current conditions, Egypt will not be able to bring about a reconciliation between Hamas and Fatah, a situation that weakens the Palestinian movement as a whole and strengthens the position of Israel. It also gives impetus to Israeli delay tactics; allowing them to gobble up more chunks of territory in the West Bank until a ‘two state solution’ becomes practically impossible – which many observers argue is already the case. Egypt, if it follows more of an evenhanded approach, is the only regional force that can possibly achieve reconciliation. This may have been on the cards when Nabil El-Araby, Egyptian Foreign Minister during the first transitional period in 2011, made some serious efforts to achieve reconciliation. However he was briskly moved to the Arab League in a polite yet forced retirement.

Second, this popular demonization of Hamas allows for the continuation of the traditional Egyptian policies of coopting and suppressing radical forces in the region. Egyptian elites can continue to place themselves as the pillars of American and by extension Israeli policies in the region, serving their interests rather than Egyptian national interests. Finally, the idea that Egypt's foreign policy continues to be subordinate to American goals inhibits the development of Egyptian soft powers, not allowing it to play a stabilizing role in other regional conflicts such as the Syrian civil war. 

Will this popular demonization of Hamas last? One can safely argue that it is part of the internal Egyptian dynamic and false consciousness imposed on the masses. I have argued elsewhere that this consciousness will collapse in the medium to long term due to class conflicts between the ruling military clique and the urban middle class; the back bone of the revolutionary movement. This, however, does not mean that it will cease with the collapse of this false consciousness.

It depends on the behaviour of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, since there is a strong connection in people’s minds between Hamas and them; both need to be rehabilitated in the eyes of the masses. In other words, the Brotherhood needs to redeem the "Islamist" brand as a whole and re-establish the distinction between a radical and moderate Islamist. This rehabilitation is not something that will happen any time soon. Alternatively, Hamas might work to break the link with the Brotherhood in the minds of the Egyptian masses, which considering the current situation is a Herculean task to say the least. The days ahead seem bleak for Gaza, Hamas and the Palestinian cause.                                                        

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