Hamas at the crossroads
With the Syrian regime collapsing, Hamas will soon have to choose between overt resistance and the pragmatic stance of the Islamist movement from which it was born, writes Nicola Nasser
Hamas is walking on a tightrope now, caught in suspended animation between its credentials as a resistance movement and its pedigree as an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood. In recent years, Hamas has enjoyed the undying support of both Damascus and Iran. But with Damascus in the throes of upheaval, things look uncertain for Hamas.
For now, Hamas is trying to put a brave face on it. The movement has pledged not to be part of any political or military axis and not to take sides in the Syrian debacle. This will buy it some time, but not a lot.
Then there is the question of Hamas ideology. The movement is officially at least part of the international matrix of the Muslim Brotherhood.
The Hamas charter states that the movement is a "wing of the Muslim Brotherhood". Its founder, Ahmed Yassin, is on record as saying that "Hamas was founded by the Muslim Brotherhood. We are a Muslim Brotherhood movement."
Hamas should have been thrilled by the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood to positions of power in various Arab countries, courtesy of the Arab Spring. But in reality, this is far from being a comforting development.
Hamas may soon have to opt out of the Damascus-Tehran axis to forge closer ties with the Muslim Brotherhood. But such a step will have a far-reaching impact on the Gaza-based movement.
The Hamas story begins in 1987, with the Palestinian Muslim Brotherhood deciding to form a new resistance movement to become part of the Intifada. At this time, the Al-Qassam Brigades, the military wing of Hamas, was yet to be formed. But once Hamas acquired its own military wing it became a national resistance movement in ways that transcended the ideology of the Muslim Brotherhood, its founder.
With Egypt electing its first Muslim Brotherhood president, Hamas is expected to have new allies, but these new allies may not see eye-to-eye with the leaders of Hamas.
At some point in the future, Hamas will feel the pressure mounting between its resistance credentials, as a movement engaged in armed struggle, and its Muslim Brotherhood credentials, which links it to actual power in more than one Arab country.
The tensions can already be felt. Mohamed Mursi has clearly said that Egypt will respect its international agreements with the US and Israel. This suggests that Egypt is not willing to replace Syria or Iran as the main benefactor of Hamas. Other countries of the Arab Spring, where the Islamists have risen to power, may also have their reservations about Hamas.
In Syria, frictions have already surfaced. When the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood joined the opposition fighting for regime change in Syria, Hamas leaders didn't know what to do. Consequently, they left the country.
Hamas still keeps offices in Syria, but they are empty. According to Moussa Abu Marzouq, deputy chief of the Hamas politburo, the movement has no intention to move from Damascus. But already everyone is gone. Abu Marzouq is in Cairo, Meshaal in Qatar, Mohamed Nazzal in Amman and Emad Al-Elmi in Gaza.
It has been said that Egypt, Sudan and Jordan have turned down requests by Hamas to move their Damascus offices there.
Interestingly, the departure of Hamas leaders from Damascus has always been a US-Israeli request. It the reason Washington classifies Syria as a "sponsor of terror". But neither Damascus nor Hamas are likely to have any political reward from the current situation.
To make things worse, Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) officials are now using Hamas's Muslim Brotherhood credentials to discredit it. Fatah's Azzam Al-Ahmed says that Hamas has become too strong-headed to engage in reconciliation. This is because "some individuals in the Muslim Brotherhood leadership" are giving Hamas too much encouragement, Al-Ahmed claims.
Doha is said to be ready to host Hamas's offices should the movement decide to stress its Muslim Brotherhood credentials rather than its "resistance" agenda. But there will be a price to pay. Remember what happened to the PLO when it opted out of resistance and into negotiations? The same may soon happen to Hamas. Once it distances itself from resistance in favour of Islamist pragmatism, it will be a whole new game for the Gaza-based group.
Hamas has so far had it both ways, playing up its resistance cards with Syria and its Muslim Brotherhood cards with countries of the Arab Spring. But at some point, it will have to take sides.
Damascus and Tehran are both aware of the tightrope Hamas is walking. And they have been kind enough not to make things harder for the movement. Speaking in a recent tour of Syria and Lebanon, Said Jalili, secretary of Iran's Supreme National Council, praised "our Hamas friends" while voicing satisfaction with the "Islamic awakening" in the region.
Meshaal, who was in Tunisia last month, said that, "resistance is the only way to liberate Palestine, for the land that has been taken away by force cannot be liberated except by force." Meshaal added that the Palestinians should forget about negotiations and unite in a resistance quest.
Hamas is biding its time, but it will have to face facts. Either stick with its resistance option and risk alienating its ideological mentors, or humour the latter and risk losing its resistance credentials forever. Ironically, it is the same dilemma Fatah encountered in the past.
The writer is a journalist based in Bir Zeit in the Israeli-occupied Palestinian territories.