Wednesday,22 November, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1122, 15 - 21 November 2012
Wednesday,22 November, 2017
Issue 1122, 15 - 21 November 2012

Ahram Weekly

Hamas post-Damascus

What will happen to Hamas, and who will lead it, outside the protection of the Syrian regime remain matters of speculation, writes Ahmed Eleiba

Al-Ahram Weekly

No one could have predicted the dramatic collapse in the Syrian-Hamas relationship that, for years, had been one of the cornerstones of the anti-US, Western and Zionist “rejectionist axis”. To a large extent, this was because that it was hard to imagine that Hamas would sacrifice the network of political, economic, security and military interests that it had woven over years of empowerment in Syria and that offered a shield against Israel’s targeted assassinations of Hamas leaders and continued care and support from Syria’s loyal ally, Iran. But the unexpected happened and Hamas chose to relinquish its safe refuge and font of generous funding after the rise of the Syrian revolution when it eventually struck home that Hamas could not stand in the same trenches together with Tehran and Damascus.
Bullets fired from Bashar Al-Assad’s army have shed blood affiliated with Hamas. Moussa Abu Marzouk, assistant director of Hamas’s politburo told Al-Ahram Weekly that Hamas members were behind the lines of the anti-Assad resistance front, offering medical and relief support, but were under orders not to carry arms. But the regime in Damascus was not convinced and ordered Hamas offices in Syria shut down. Evidently, Hamas leaders in Syria had anticipated the move, for they had already moved papers and other belongings out of those offices and distributed them among their various premises in Cairo, Tunisia and Qatar.
Some maintain that Hamas’s wavering over whether to take the one-way journey out of Damascus ended following the presidential elections in Egypt that brought Muslim Brotherhood member Mohamed Morsi to power. Other sources added that Egypt had benefited from Hamas’s departure from the “rejectionist front” because it cut off the avenue that enabled Iran to meddle in the Gazan field and, hence, the Egyptian playing field via the Sinai gateway where arms have been pouring in beneath the banner of “support for the resistance”.
Iran had spent lavishly on Hamas and, in 2009, even the Islamic Jihad, which is ideologically closer to Iran than Hamas, received its share of support from Tehran via Hamas. Moreover, Iran kept the taps of funding open in spite of its occasional complaints against the ways in which Hamas tried to stem the expansion of the Shia tide in Gaza. The Hamas government ruthlessly clamped down on any attempts to build Shia houses of worship and entered into fierce battles with Shia militiamen.
Then developments in Syria changed it all. Iran pit itself zealously behind Al-Assad’s regime, while Hamas went just as zealously in the opposite direction. Iran began to tighten the purse strings. A newspaper close to Iranian Supreme Guide Ayatollah Ali Khamenei wrote that, in taking this stance, “[Hamas leader Khaled] Meshaal has forgotten the years in which he had lived and worked under Syrian protection in Damascus and is now behaving like a Zionist agent. He is ready to sacrifice the Palestinian people for the sake of his personal ambitions.”
Syrian television, too, railed against the Hamas leader with similar vehemence after he had taken part in two events. The first was the national convention of the Turkish Justice and Development Party in Ankara, on which occasion Meshaal declared, “We welcomed the revolutions in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya and Yemen, and today we welcome the revolution of the Syrian people who are fighting for liberty and democracy. We want the bloodshed of this people to stop. There is no contradiction between promoting democracy and reform and support for the resistance… We stand with the aspirations of all people for freedom, justice, democracy, dignity and true independence.”
Meshaal was more explicit in his denunciation of the situation in Syria in the second event he attended. This was the Fatah Reform Convention, which was held in the Citadel in Cairo and at which he reaffirmed his support for the Syrian opposition.
To stem the deterioration in the Hamas-Iranian relationship, the Hamas government premier Ismail Haniyeh and the most likely candidate to succeed Meshaal as the leader of the Hamas movement, flew to Tehran. The visit failed to produce an impression that tensions had been smoothed over. Another Hamas leader, Mahmoud Al-Zahar followed suit only to return laden with responses to the effect that “if Hamas is not in the camp with Syria, Iran and Hizbullah, then it must be in the camp of the enemy.”
Some in Syria are not surprised by the changes in Tehran and Damascus’s attitudes towards Hamas, because this is the nature of the “rejectionist” axis. Syrian opposition activist Ahmed Riad Ghanam told the Weekly, “the Syrian regime stood against Fatah on the grounds that it stood in the Israeli camp, contrary to Hamas. Now things have come out into the open and we see Al-Assad fighting the [Palestinian] resistance, as represented by Hamas, and closing down its offices.”
Many in the Syrian opposition do not blame Hamas for its wavering earlier in the Syrian revolution, but they had expected to see clearer results sooner. Ghanam pointed out that nothing more was expected from Hamas but to take the moral position, which was to side with the people of Syria out of gratitude to them for their support for the Palestinian struggle. Abu Marzouk countered that Hamas had not ignored its debt of gratitude, adding “Our relationship with the people of Syria took priority over our relationship with the regime.”
Nevertheless, Ghanam felt that Hamas should have taken a more definitive stance, such as siding with the Egyptian leadership on the Syrian question. “We only have the Egyptian leadership. Iran has a project to strike Arab ranks.” At the same time, he added, the Syrian opposition is grateful for the amount of support Hamas members did give, even if this fell short of taking up arms. “We thank Hamas for its position and recognise the heavy pressures that were brought against it by the regime,” he said.
In all events, for Hamas the situation in Syria has reached a point of no return. “There has been a parting of ways, and these ways can not converge again after the Syrian regime moved to close Hamas offices,” said Abu Marzouk. But this does not imply the end of Hamas’s presence in Damascus. “It’s supporters are there and everywhere in the country,” he said.
Moreover, the parting of ways was not just with Al-Assad, but also with his Iranian ally, it appears. Referring to authorities in Tehran, Abu Marzouk said, “Without a doubt our position and our assessment of the situation in Syria are totally different from theirs. Therefore, there is not agreement, but divergence.”
No one, including Muslim Brotherhood sources in Egypt, can or will say for certain whether the Hamas movement leadership will now take Cairo as a base. Highly placed Hamas officials, such as Abu Marzouk, have not been given permission to engage in politics in Egypt in the manner that they had in Damascus. Some observers of the president’s office believe that it is very unlikely that Cairo will become Hamas’s new mecca because of the sensitivity of the situation with the US and, by extension, Israel. At the same time, many analysts fear that some Arab governments will be interested in courting Hamas and inviting it into their country so that these governments could use Hamas as a pressure card against other parties in the region.
Within Hamas, itself, there are sharp divisions of opinion on the subject. There has been some debate over whether the movement’s leadership should move back to Palestine, with many questioning the wisdom of this on the grounds that the members of the leadership would be vulnerable to Israeli assassination attacks and lack sufficient manoeuvrability. Hamas sources believe that the question will be resolved once the matter of their new leadership is resolved.
Steps towards this end may take place within the next two weeks. According to a source close to the Hamas government, 12 Hamas leaders are due to arrive in Cairo where they will chose the man to succeed Meshaal as head of the Hamas politburo. It will be the first time in which the Egyptian capital serves as the venue for this purpose. According to the source, there are two scenarios.
One is that Haniyeh will emerge as leader, placing the leadership firmly back in Palestine, while Meshaal steps out of the picture. The other is that Meshaal continues to play a leading role abroad. This scenario has sparked diverse reactions both within Hamas and elsewhere.
At a time when there is a strong feeling that Hamas needs a new leadership for the post-Arab Spring period, many believe that the latter scenario would harm the movement. However, it is consistent with the thinking of some who would like to see the creation of an organisation abroad larger than the current Hamas politburo and something along the lines of the International Muslim Brotherhood Organisation. Such a larger body could play a useful role in the international domain and perform functions that the government of Gaza and Hamas offices abroad cannot, they argue. They further maintain that an international Hamas organisation could be instrumental in promoting the restructuring of the Palestine Liberation Organisation in accordance with the proposal for this that Hamas submitted at the start of dialogue between the Palestinian factions that was held in Cairo five years ago.
Although Hamas is a branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, Freedom and Justice Party sources have told the Weekly that neither the party nor the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt will play a part in the selection of Meshaal’s successor. At the same time, however, they hinted that they would prefer Hamas leaders to choose a candidate from outside Palestine.
According to a Muslim Brotherhood source, this year marks the first time in which the international Muslim Brotherhood did not come together during the pilgrimage to Mecca. Muslim Brotherhood Supreme Guide Mohamed Badie came down with an acute pulmonary infection and had to be rushed to hospital in Saudi Arabia. Other key Brotherhood officials did not go on the pilgrimage at all this year. This development seems to reduce the likelihood of the creation of an international organisation comprising Hamas and to favour the scenario in which Meshaal remains chief until the matter of new outside headquarters is resolved and many other issues settled.

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