Assuming it is final, one can hardly underestimate the setback that Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi's ouster deals to Hamas, the Islamic Resistance Movement that won the last Palestinian legislative election in 2006 and took control of Gaza by force a year later.
For Hamas, the Muslim Brotherhood is more than just an ally; it is a parent organization with identical goals of establishing a society based on sharia or Islamic law. Indeed Hamas defines itself in its charter and elsewhere as a ''branch'' of the brotherhood.
Before the 2011 revolution that was followed by Morsi's election, relations between Hamas and the dictatorship of Hosni Mubarak were lukewarm, with Egypt tending to favor President Mahmoud Abbas over Hamas and even appearing to acquiesce in Israel's Operation Cast Lead, the 2008-2009 military campaign in Gaza launched with the stated purpose of halting Hamas rocket fire.
Under Morsi, by contrast, some Hamas officials moved to Cairo and there were coordination meetings between top Muslim Brotherhood figures and Hamas leaders—although Morsi was also careful to adhere to Egypt's peace treaty with Israel. Morsi brokered the ceasefire agreement that ended last November's three-week Israel-Gaza mini-war on terms seen as favorable to Hamas. But Hamas was disappointed that Morsi did not move to open the Rafah border crossing between Egypt and the Strip to commercial traffic, a step that would have definitively broken its isolation.
Still, Hamas knew that they had in the Egyptian president someone who basically sympathized with them. But now, if the state media is any indication, post-Morsi Egypt is veering for the first time into outright hostility towards Hamas, something that would inevitably also entail favoritism towards its rival, Abbas. As Amman-based commentator Osama el-Sharif noted in a recent article in the Jordan Times, the Egyptian media is now blaming Hamas for lawlessness in the Sinai Peninsula and for carrying out attacks on soldiers and policemen there. The media has also been alleging Hamas was involved in attacks on prisons on January 29, 2011 that freed thirty Islamists, including Morsi.
The loss of Egypt leaves Hamas perhaps for the first time in its history without any ally in the region. ''For the first time it is facing a real political earthquake,'' says Mahdi Abdul-Hadi, director of the Palestinian Academic Society for the Study of International Affairs. For many years Syria and Iran were Hamas's patrons and the Lebanese Shiite fundamentalist Hezbollah movement a close ally. But after the start of the Arab Spring, Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal decided on a strategic shift of the group's alliances. Despite Damascus being the headquarters for Hamas's political bureau, Meshaal opposed the Assad regime's quelling of the uprising in Syria, a move that also made Hamas an enemy in the eyes of Syria's Iranian allies and Hezbollah. Meshaal was betting on Qatar, Turkey and Egypt as the rising powers in the region. The decision also placed Hamas, which has an entirely Sunni Muslim constituency, in the Sunni camp together with the Gulf states in the sectarian conflict with Shiites increasingly wracking the Middle East.
But the realignment has all gone awry for Hamas. Not only has the linchpin of the strategy, the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, been ousted, but Qatar's support has become a question mark with a new emir, Tamim Bin Khalifa, succeeding his father, Hamad Bin Khalifa al-Thani (who had paid a landmark visit to Gaza earlier this year). Tamim appears to be setting his sites on a less ambitious foreign policy for the emirate, something that could impact funding for Gaza. And Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been too preoccupied by domestic protests to give much backing to Hamas.
The sense is that when things further clarify in Egypt, Hamas will need to do something decisive to break its isolation. ''Hamas cannot survive like this,'' says Ghassan Khatib, Vice President of Bir Zeit University in the West Bank and a former Palestinian Authority cabinet minister. In his view, it will make a choice between ending the six-year-old rift with Abbas's Fatah movement and restoring its relations with Iran, including by championing armed attacks against Israel.
Reconciliation with Fatah is not seen at present as being an appealing choice for Hamas. While Abbas wants the reconciliation to lead to elections within three months, Hamas is not enthusiastic about polling because it believes that even if it performs strongly, Israel will not allow it to rule in the West Bank and that the rapprochement would simply enable Abbas to regain a hold in Gaza at its expense.
''After the fall of the Muslim Brotherhood and the loss of Syria and Iran and the uncertainty over Qatar, Hamas is in a very difficult situation,'' says Hani Masri, director of Masarat think tank in Ramallah. ''It is wary of moving towards reconciliation under these circumstances, it would be surrender.'' Nor has Abbas shown thus far a willingness to meet Hamas demands such as sharing power in the Palestine Liberation Organization. He is also not anxious to alienate U.S. secretary of state John Kerry, who has invested so much to relaunch peace diplomacy, making overtures to Hamas even more unlikely unless the negotiating bid collapses.
All of this makes it probable Hamas will opt for Iran, including a possible return to cross-border rocket attacks against Israel. Even the prospect of an all out war with Israel might not deter a cornered Hamas.
In the long run, the group may be weakened further or it may bounce back from its reversals. The best way to weaken Hamas is simple: show that diplomacy led by Abbas, not violence as espoused by Hamas, is the way to end Israeli occupation. Indeed it was partly as a result of Israel subverting the roadmap international peace blueprint and opting instead for a unilateral withdrawal from the Gaza Strip in 2005 that Abbas was undermined. Hamas achieved its stunning victory in the legislative elections the following year.
Even if Kerry restarts the talks, they will be futile and detrimental to Palestinian moderates unless Israel accepts the idea of a compromise based on the 1967 borders with land swaps, as have Abbas and the Arab League. Indeed refusal by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to halt the ongoing transformation of the West Bank at Palestinian expense can only help ensure Hamas's continued resonance in spite of its current troubles.
Ben Lynfield writes from the Middle East for the Scotsman and other publications.
Image: Wikimedia Commons/Soman. CC BY-SA 2.5.