Friday saw hundreds of Palestinians amassing outside Egypt’s diplomatic mission in the Gaza Strip to protest its branding of the Ezzedine al-Qassam Brigades — the armed wing of Hamas, which governs the region — as terrorists. The Cairo Court for Urgent Matters notably accused the brigades of involvement in a Sinai attack that killed 30 Egyptian soldiers on October 24.
The ruling marks a further deterioration of relations between Cairo and Hamas, on the decline since the ousting of Egyptian President Mohammed Mursi in July 2013. Egypt’s longtime (if informal) patronage of Hamas disintegrated alongside Mursi’s Muslim Brotherhood, whose supporters have found themselves heavily targeted by the state. Egypt authorities also placed a bullseye on Hamas, holding it responsible for aiding Islamist terrorists in the Sinai Peninsula, banning all its activities and – for good measure – seizing its Cairo headquarters. Hostilities came to a head with Egypt’s decision to destroy many of the smuggling tunnels that served as Gaza’s primary economic lifeline. (The closures are reportedly costing the Gaza leadership $230 million per month.)
The divide between Hamas and Egypt is as figurative as it is literal – in January, Cairo expanded a buffer zone along the border with the Gaza Strip to keep militants out. While Hamas was for a while making overtures to Egypt’s new military leadership — albeit tepid ones — the icy relations look set to stay. An armed spokesman of Hamas read a statement Thursday affirming the group’s focus on Israel, not Egypt:
Resistance factions and the Qassam Brigades concentrate their work against the Zionist enemy. […] We reaffirm that we do not intervene in the internal affairs of Arab countries and we hope that no one will export their internal problems toward the Palestinian people and its resistance factions.
Despite such indignation, the Egypt ruling – which after all only echoes similar designations by the United States and the European Union – is unlikely to slow Hamas down too much. After all, the resourceful organization has already survived rejection by its two primary allies in the Arab world: Syria and Iran. And despite an economic downturn in Gaza, shows of public unrest have been isolated.
If anything, the ruling could cost Cairo some credibility when it comes to its historic mediator role in both the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and ongoing negotiations between Hamas and its Palestinian rival, Fatah, which rules the West Bank.
As for Hamas, the ever-resourceful organization is already looking abroad for a new patron. Namely Saudi Arabia. Following the death of Saudi King Abdullah bin Abdul-Aziz Al Saud in January, Hamas sent a letter of condolence and support to the new king in a move aimed at improving relations with the regional heavyweight. A thaw with Riyadh could translate to respectability for Hamas on the international stage, much needed financial aid, and support when it comes to ending Egypt’s Gaza blockade. Here however, Hamas is aiming high – Saudi Arabia has long been icy towards the Gaza group, and partial to its rival Fatah. But given Hamas’ current isolation, it has to.