Wednesday,19 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1208, (7 - 13 August 2014)
Wednesday,19 September, 2018
Issue 1208, (7 - 13 August 2014)

Ahram Weekly

Conflicting narratives

Anti-Hamas rhetoric in the Egyptian media has complicated the public’s response to the humanitarian disaster unfolding in Gaza, writes Khaled Dawoud

Al-Ahram Weekly

When Israel launched its aerial bombing campaign against Gaza a month ago a journalist tweeted “Thank you Netanyahu, may God grant us more people like you to terminate Hamas and Muslim Brotherhood agents”.

Tawfik Okasha, serial controversialist, owner of Al-Faraeen television channel and cheerleader for the remnants of the regime of ousted President Hosni Mubarak, took his shoes off on air and waved them at the camera, telling viewers this was his response to anyone who dared suggest President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi was indifferent to the suffering of Palestinians.

The escalation of Israeli attacks, and the rising death toll among Palestinians, did little to abate anti-Hamas hysteria. Commentators on state-owned television claimed Hamas was plotting with Qatar and Turkey and should not receive any help from Cairo. Other anchors simply repeated Israeli allegations, blaming Hamas for the death toll among Palestinians and accusing it of launching rockets from civilian neighbourhoods, mosques and schools.

The positions espoused by the Egyptian media were seized on by their Israeli counterparts, and attacked by pan-Arab television channels, not least Qatar-based Al-Jazeera.
In contrast to the Egyptian media, Arab nationalist and leftist opposition parties were quick to condemn the Israeli onslaught. They called on the government to open the Rafah border crossing and ease the Israeli siege of Gaza. Demonstrations were held and statements issued. Visits were made to the Palestinian ambassador to Egypt. There were attempts to send medical and food supplies to Gaza. The foreign ministry’s call at the beginning of the war for “both sides to immediately stop all acts of violence” was roundly criticized for equating the Israeli army with a handful of freedom fighters. But the protests held by opposition and radical youth groups were tiny in comparison to the angry demonstrations held in response to past Israel assaults against the Palestinians.

Accusations that Hamas is responsible for terrorist attacks not just in Sinai but in cities across Egypt, repeated in both the state-owned and private media for a year now, have clearly taken their toll. Hamas stands accused of allying with Brotherhood members and other Islamist militant groups, of providing training to extremists in Egypt and supplying weapons through cross-border tunnels. It is even claimed that Hamas was behind the popular revolution that led to the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak in 2011. Mubarak’s successor, Mohamed Morsi, is facing charges of espionage and providing intelligence to Hamas during his year in office. The charge sheet against Morsi also includes allegations he was sprung from prison by armed Hamas operatives days after the uprising against Mubarak began.

Senior officials from Hamas — labeled “the Brotherhood’s Gaza branch” by swathes of the Egyptian media — expressed dismay at Cairo’s reaction to the plight of Gazans. They compared it unfavourably to the Egyptian response to past crises, under both Mubarak and Morsi. After 30 years in power Mubarak had established his regime as a key player in US and international efforts seeking to broker an end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Morsi was keen to assume the same mantel. In late 2012 he managed to broker a truce eight days after fighting broke out between Hamas and Israel, thus proving his credentials to Washington as someone who could act to contain the actions of Islamist groups in the region.
Egyptian officials deny they are indifferent to the suffering of Palestinians in Gaza. They insist they have been involved in mediation efforts behind the scenes since the current conflict began. After several failed attempts, Israel and Hamas agreed late Monday to an Egyptian initiative providing for a 72-hour truce during which both sides were to send delegations to Cairo to begin negotiating conditions that will allow for the gradual lifting of the Israeli siege of Gaza and an end to the firing of Palestinian rockets towards Israel.

Most commentators agree that the Israeli army was able to continue its war against Gaza for a month, during which 1,860 Palestinians, including more than 300 children, were killed, partly because of competition between regional capitals — Cairo, Doha and Ankara — over who would broker an end to the war. Qatar and Turkey were among the Brotherhood’s, and Mohamed Morsi’s, staunchest supporters. Both maintain close ties to Hamas. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has attended rallies held by Brotherhood supporters in Turkey, and recently described Al-Sisi as a “tyrant” who led a military coup against a democratically elected president.

Keen to maintain its position as chief Palestinian-Israeli mediator, Cairo was quick off the mark. It announced its first ceasefire initiative on 14 July, calling for an immediate ceasefire between Israel and “Palestinian factions in Gaza Strip”. The statement read out by Egypt’s Foreign Minister, Sameh Shukri, during an emergency Arab League meeting included details of the truce but avoided mentioning Hamas by name. The language was neutral, and the initiative was made public without any prior coordination with Hamas. It soon became clear that Hamas thought it could secure better conditions for a truce if it negotiated with Washington through Qatar and Turkey.

Informed sources say Al-Sisi wanted to avoid direct dealings with Hamas. He left this to Egyptian Intelligence, just as Mubarak did. He was also keen to strengthen the hand of beleaguered Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas by reviving the 2005 US-brokered agreement that placed control of the Rafah crossing jointly in the hands of the PA, Israel and European monitors.

Statements from Hamas suggest Egypt’s refusal to receive its de facto leader, Khaled Mashaal, delayed the launch of indirect talks between Hamas and Israel in Cairo. Egyptian officials insisted Mashaal’s Cairo-based deputy, Moussa Abu Marzouk, represent Hamas on the joint Palestinian delegation that has been in Cairo since the beginning of the week to negotiate conditions for a truce in Gaza.
Following Israel’s shelling of a UN school used to shelter thousands of Palestinians in Jabalyia, and a flood of pictures of Palestinian children killed and maimed in the Israeli onslaught, opinion pieces started to appear in the Egyptian press describing Israel’s actions in Gaza as war crimes. Concern was also voiced that Cairo had been outflanked by the response of Latin American countries which had recalled their ambassadors. Bolivia went as far as to dub Israel a terrorist state.

Cairo began to modify its initial initiative, which had included an immediate, unconditional ceasefire, moving towards the Hamas demand for a “humanitarian truce”. Such a truce would allow for indirect negotiations over the terms of an Israeli troop withdrawal, a relaxation of the blockade of Gaza and the release of prisoners. While there are no guarantees that the 72-hour truce announced on Monday will hold, Cairo will be working hard to maintain the calm. Popular anti-Hamas feeling, however, fanned by the media, is unlikely to die down soon. It will continue to be a factor in determining Egypt’s relations with the Palestinians.

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