The biggest ‘loser’ – other than the Muslim Brotherhood – in Egypt’s coup last month has not been Turkey, Qatar or Tunisia, but is none other than Hamas.
Hamas faces acute regional isolation and it literally stares at an existential crisis. The Brotherhood government in Cairo led by President Mohamed Morsi used to provide a vital lifeline for Hamas, which is virtually irreplaceable. Of course, what happened in Egypt was beyond Hamas’ control and it cannot be held responsible for it, either. But the ‘collateral damage’ could nonetheless prove lethal.
After the overthrow of the Morsi government, the Egyptian military leadership has closed the Rafah crossing and sealed the infamous tunnels through which Gaza carried on its communion with the outside world defying the Israeli blockade. All indications are that the military leadership is closely coordinating with the Israeli security agencies while re-imposing restrictions of various kinds on the Hamas, which of course steams from a back-to-back deal between Cairo and Tel Aviv that inter alia ensures that Washington will not be able to step up pressure on the Egyptian junta, even if it wants to, beyond a mutually agreeable threshold.
Needless to say, Washington’s criticism of the violent crackdown on the Brotherhood in Egypt lacks real bite. The Obama administration will doubtless try to keep its options open in a future scenario if the Brotherhood – which after all commands huge popular support – does manage to stage a political comeback. But on the other hand, it is also business as usual between Washington and Cairo. The Pentagon just confirmed that the large-scale military exercise it has been planning to hold in Egypt in September remains on course.
Biting the hand that feeds
But then, the Hamas leadership has been at fault, too. Hamas literally bit the hand that was feeding it when it snapped its longstanding relationship with the Syrian government under President Bashar al-Assad. Over the years Damascus had extended lavish hospitality and political patronage to the Hamas leadership through the thick and thin but all that was forgotten overnight when Khaled Meshaal packed bags and summarily left for Doha when the Turkish – Qatari – Saudi push began for a ‘regime change’ in Syria.
All sorts of speculations arose as to why Meshaal took such a rash decision, and what was the secret ‘charm offensive’ by Qatar to which he succumbed, but suffice to say, Hamas unwittingly took sides in the sectarian divide that surfaced in Syria and found itself tacitly aligned with Qatar and Turkey. Which, in turn, inevitably impacted on its ties with Iran. For the brief period it lasted – a year or two – Hamas was probably a beneficiary of the regional axis of Turkey, Qatar and Egypt that sought to project the Muslim Brotherhood as the charioteer of the new Middle East.
But the disintegration of that regional axis following the coup in Egypt – and the cascading pressure on the Brotherhood all across the Middle East and the Maghreb – pushes Hamas into a cul-de-sac. Arguably, Hamas has found itself in dire straits before also – such as when to came to power in Gaza in 2006.
What has been true at that time and what could turn out to be the case today also is that the pressure from Israel and the US and its regional allies will only strengthen its support locally among the Palestinian people. This is one thing.
But on the other hand, the US and its key allies – especially Egypt and Israel – have pressed ahead with the Middle East peace talks in Washington with the confidence that Hamas has been reduced to a mere shadow of what it used to be. Of course, the US and Israel will count on the Egyptian military leadership to ensure that Hamas doesn’t easily break out of its isolation. Therefore, the big question is how far Turkey, Qatar and Iran will show interest in reviving the Hamas’ sagging fortunes.
Turkey will unlikely resort to a strategic defiance of the West by undercutting the US-led efforts to revive the Middle East peace process. Also, Turkey is bogged down with its own Kurdish problem, which has lately exacerbated as a result of the conflict in Syria. The Turkish Prime Minister Recep Erdogan has virtually shelved his plans to visit Gaza. With poor relations with Egypt and Israel and the Obama administration ignoring it as a key protagonist in the Middle Eastern developments and the ties with the Saudis drifting into uncertainties, Turkish diplomacy has been forced on to the back foot.
As for Qatar, no one quite knows what could be its foreign-policy orientation under the new Emir. Like Turkey, Qatar also used to be a high flier in the regional politics but has ended up overreaching itself. The Brotherhood’s exit from power in Egypt has disoriented the Qatari regional policies. Qatar has neither the will nor the capacity to counter the US-Saudi axis in regional affairs, either.
That leaves Iran as the only interlocutor that Hamas can turn to in its hour of distress. Indeed, Iran, too, is caught in the middle of a political transition and the new set-up in Tehran not only will need time to settle down but will also be focusing on the nascent trends toward starting direct talks with the US, which of course will be an awkward time to queer the pitch of the Palestinian resistance and annoy the Obama administration.
However, a close reading of the Iranian pronouncements show that Tehran’s foreign-policy directions remain unwavering. President-elect Hassan Rouhani exchanged noticeably warm greetings with the secretary-general of Hezbollah Hassan Nasrallah. Rouhani said: «No doubt, your tireless and dedicated efforts and those of Hezbollah warriors on the scene of resistance promise the decisive victory of the resistant Lebanese and Palestinian nations over the Zionist regime, which has always been supported by the Islamic Republic».
All things taken into account, therefore, a good starting point for Hamas ought to restore its past ties with the Hezbollah. Conceivably, Hamas is thinking on these lines and a three-way meeting of the Hamas and Hezbollah representatives and Iranian officials might have already taken place in Beirut recently. The Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Abbas Arghachi has been cited as saying that Hamas and Iran are close to resolving their differences and misunderstandings over Syria.
The Hamas spokesman Ahmad Yusuf also said in a statement: "We have not lost allies; on the contrary, we are keeping all our friends, but there are issues that led to some apathy in the relationship, and we as a movement and government are eager to keep our fraternal relations with all the countries of region, which have a degree of cooperation, coordination, and support because Palestine is the cause of the [Muslim world] and not only the cause of the Palestinians. Therefore, we are eager to iron out all the differences in the interest of our people and cause." Meanwhile, Iran and Hamas have taken an identical stance on the US initiative to ‘revive’ the Middle East peace talks. Both see the talks as a ploy by the Obama administration to safeguard Israel’s interests and mitigate its regional isolation.
The Iranian regime keeps up with the practice begun by Imam Khomeini to observe the last Friday of the holy month of Ramadan as the International Quds Day. It is an occasion to express solidarity with the Palestinians. The influential political figure Alaeddin Broujerdi, chairman of Iranian parliament’s national security and foreign policy commission, has been quoted as saying, «This year’s Quds Day has a special place due to the ongoing crisis in Muslim countries, especially Syria and Egypt, as well as the futile peace talks». The Hamas’ presence in Tehran on August 2 will provide a clue to assess the realignments following the coup in Egypt.