from Pressure Points and Middle East Program

Hamas and Egypt

November 19, 2012

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Middle East and North Africa



The visit of Egypt’s prime minister to Gaza last week, and a return visit promised for Tuesday, raises the question why President Morsi has not himself gone. Why send the little-known PM when a personal visit would presumably gain Morsi much more acclaim back home?

Here’s a theory:  Morsi is the Muslim Brotherhood president of Egypt but he is still president of Egypt. He thinks of Egypt as a great nation and is not given to the kind of language we associate with Al Qaeda leaders or the Ayatollah Khomeini, about states all disappearing and Islam being all that is left. He wants Egypt to be, once again, a leader in Arab councils and in world politics.

He does not want to have his foreign policy and his relations with Israel and the United States determined by Hamas. After all, Hamas rules a million and a half people in Gaza; he governs 85 million in Egypt. Why should the tail wag the dog?

Moreover, if many people have forgotten his margin of victory in the June election, he has not. He got just over 51 percent of the vote, while Gen. Shafik got 48.27 percent; no landslide. Morsi may well have concluded not only that he must avoid a war with Israel (which would among other things destroy his relationship with the United States, and set back his economy drastically) but that he must avoid a ground conflict between Hamas and Israel. Such a ground war would inflame passions and lead who knows where.

It might require, for example, that he break relations with Israel or renounce the Camp David accords, two things he has very strikingly not done. While Israeli rockets strike Gaza, all he has done is bring his ambassador home. That is, he has drawn a careful separation between the interests of Hamas, and those of Egypt. Similarly, Hamas’s hopes that he would immediately after taking power open the border between Gaza and Sinai have gone unmet. The border is sometimes open and sometimes not, but he has not erased the distinction between the entity called Gaza and his own country, despite Muslim Brotherhood ideology.

One can take this line of reasoning too far, of course. And it remains to be seen, after this war, whether Egypt blocks Hamas efforts to restock its missile supply--especially with the long-range Fajr missile from Iran. But if one asks who is more disappointed with Morsi’s conduct today, Prime Minister Netanyahu of Israel or Khaled Meshal of Hamas, the answer is easy: Meshal. He wanted to mobilize Egypt on behalf of Hamas. Morsi is not—yet anyway—letting the tail wag the dog.