Egyptian army chief and presidential candidate Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has signaled a significant turnaround on Egypt’s current policy towards Hamas after nearly a year of antagonism between Cairo and the Palestinian political faction. The development comes as Hamas and West Bank rivals Fatah move closer to a unity government, with an agreement expected to be announced as early as next week. The expectation of a successful reconciliation between the two Palestinian factions is, no doubt, playing a role in Sisi’s calculus here as the expected presidential victor looks ahead towards his government’s regional relations.
Speaking in an interview on Egyptian television on Sunday, Sisi solidified the suspicions of some that Cairo was preparing to tone down the harsh rhetoric it has reserved for Hamas since the ouster of Muslim Brotherhood president Mohammed Morsi last July. “I call on Hamas to rehabilitate its relations with Egypt before it loses the affection of the Egyptian people once and for all.” Sisi’s formulation here is key. The seeming ultimatum puts the onus on the Palestinian movement to “rehabilitate” its relations — namely, by completely dissociating itself from the Muslim Brotherhood.
A significant part of the military-led government’s case against the Brotherhood has rested on linking it to Hamas. The robust relations the Morsi government enjoyed with the Gaza-based Palestinian faction were pointed to by his military successors as evidence of his party’s terror links. And, in the course of the domestic crackdown on the Brotherhood and its allies, Hamas has developed a toxic reputation in the Egyptian public sphere. The means with which the military-led government successfully tarred their Brotherhood predecessors thus pose a challenge for a future Sisi government recalibrating its ties with the Palestinian faction.
Hence, the timing of the shift as reconciliation talks move ahead with a reasonable possibility of a unity government on the horizon. Sisi’s call also puts forward the expectation that Hamas will itself take the initiative to make its organization more palatable to the Egyptian public. Not only does this somewhat shield Sisi from domestic backlash, it also implicitly places pressure on Hamas to distance itself from the Brotherhood. Despite Sisi’s threat of losing the “affection of the Egyptian people,” the real leverage his government holds is, of course, the Egyptian-controlled Rafah border crossing. The destruction of underground smuggling tunnels by Egypt has placed serious strain on Gaza’s government and the prospect of the re-opening of the Rafah crossing is a powerful bargaining chip.
While Haaretz is characterizing this shift as an “escape hatch” for Hamas, Sisi’s changing posture is also an important step for his future government. Since the Muslim Brotherhood’s ouster, Egypt has been far more focused on getting its own house in order (i.e. violently suppressing domestic opponents of the post-coup military-led government) than on regional dynamics. The possibility of playing a role in brokering a Palestinian unity government would be a significant boon in reasserting Egypt’s crucial position in regional politics while presenting a new Sisi presidency with a serious credibility booster. (Depriving a nearly-decimated Muslim Brotherhood of a former ally is only a side benefit). As cautious as Sisi’s language may be on the issue at the moment, look for Egypt to continue dancing its way towards Hamas in the background of ongoing reconciliation talks.