Elliott Abrams

Pressure Points

Abrams gives his take on U.S. foreign policy, with special focus on the Middle East and democracy and human rights issues.

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Hamas and the Arab Spring

by Elliott Abrams
May 2, 2012

It would be logical to assess that Hamas (a part of the Muslim Brotherhood) must be a winner from the “Arab Spring.” The various revolts have brought Islamists into power in several Arab countries, and most importantly the Muslim Brotherhood has attained a predominant position in Egypt’s parliament and may win the presidency in the forthcoming election.

But that assessment would be premature. For one thing, Hamas has lost its long-time headquarters in Damascus due to the revolt in Syria. Those who worked there have scattered: Khaled Meshal (head of the Hamas politburo) to Doha, Qatar, and others to Cairo, Istanbul, and elsewhere. As a result, more power is centered in Gaza. An Israeli newspaper story this week carried this headline: “Meshal loses control of Hamas military wing as authority moves to Gaza.” Hamas is obviously undergoing significant internal strains. Moreover, to the extent that all of its key leaders are in Gaza they are all vulnerable to Israeli retaliation for any acts of terror they authorize.

This also means that the key leaders will be involved in governing Gaza, rather than sitting comfortably in exile plotting. Polls taken earlier this year found “a significant decline in the popularity of Hamas in the Gaza Strip and a decrease in the positive evaluation of the Hamas government in the Gaza Strip….” and there is little reason to think this will change. Why? The same poll found that “73% say there is corruption in the PA institutions in the West Bank while only 62% say there is corruption in the institutions of the dismissed government in the Gaza Strip.” One of the reasons Hamas won the 2006 Palestinian parliamentary elections was the reputation of Fatah for corruption. Now Hamas is seen as almost equally corrupt.

Another news item reminds us that governing is difficult: “Blame game defers solution to Gaza’s energy crisis,” the Ma’an story says. The difficult relationship between Hamas and Egypt is the culprit, and Egyptian authorities are more concerned about law and order in the Sinai, their own relations with Sinai Bedouin smugglers, and the lawlessness of smuggling through Hamas’s tunnels, than with energy supplies to Gaza.

Perhaps this will change once a new president is elected, but I doubt that Egyptian nationalism and Egypt’s concern about the Sinai will disappear. According to the New York Times, the Egyptian Brotherhood is pressuring Hamas to moderate its extremist views and cooperate with Fatah, which rules in the West Bank. While Hamas might have expected warm support once the Brotherhood came to power in Egypt, the Times story suggests it may not be forthcoming:

“Now we have to deal with the Palestinian parties as an umbrella for both of them, and we have to stand at an equal distance from each,” said Reda Fahmy, a Brotherhood leader who oversees its Palestinian relations and is now chairman of the Arab affairs committee in Egypt’s upper house of Parliament. “Any movement of the size of the Muslim Brotherhood, when it is in the opposition it is one thing and then when it comes to power it is something completely different.”

What has changed is clear: once upon a time all the branches of the Brotherhood were in opposition to regimes in power, supporting each other’s struggles materially, politically, and rhetorically. Now some govern states, as is the case in Tunisia and Egypt, and a gap may grow between them and those whose main concern is fighting Israel. Hamas may face the worst possible combination of elements: it is not a government and does not govern a state, it faces a Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt that will have huge challenges meeting the needs of the Egyptian people, and it must at the same time cope with the almost impossible problems of ruling Gaza. The poll mentioned above says that only 31 percent of Palestinians living in Gaza give their Hamas rulers a positive evaluation. That number is more likely to decline than to rise. Hamas is one of the losers from the Arab Spring.

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