GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip — It appears that Hamas has decided to take a new approach vis-a-vis the recent demonstrations in Egyptian cities, contrary to its position supporting the January 25 Revolution that broke out in 2011 and overthrew the regime of former President Hosni Mubarak.
On Sept. 21, several newsgroups circulated on WhatsApp an audio recording of Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh asking Hamas leaders and media centers not to talk about what is happening in Egypt.
The short recording stated, “I hope and emphasize the need not to mention at all, neither from a distance or from afar, neither a statement nor a hint, neither an official media nor an informal media, anything concerning the Arab Republic of Egypt." Haniyeh stressed that "everyone must abide by these instructions.”
Over the past two weeks, Egyptian cities have witnessed sporadic demonstrations against what protesters describe as "government corruption." Demonstrators chanted slogans calling for the resignation of current President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who took power in 2013 after the removal of late President Mohamed Morsi, the Muslim Brotherhood candidate.
Hamas spokesman Hazem Qassem said that Haniyeh’s circular comes in the context of the clear position of the movement on the issues of the region, which is not to interfere or line up with one side or another.
Qassem told Al-Monitor, “Hamas (via the circular) confirmed what I have said in the past, that it will not interfere in the internal affairs of any country, whether Egypt or other countries.”
The movement's decision is contrary to what it expressed during the January revolution that broke out in Egypt in 2011, as well as its position on the removal of the late Morsi.
Commenting on this change, Qassem said the policy of nonintervention is consistent and genuine to the movement and that it cannot be measured against what he described as "individual incidents or cases,” noting that "Hamas' political performance has evolved from what it was 10 years ago.” This culminated with its new 2017 political charter, whereby it says it does not oppose a state along the 1967 borders.
Qassem stressed that "the relationship with Egypt is at its best and there is continuous communication between the Hamas leadership and the leaders in Egypt, and an understanding on bilateral issues such as securing borders and fighting extremism, in addition to Egypt's central role in the truce and Palestinian reconciliation files."
Since 2017, the relationship between Hamas and Egypt has improved markedly after four years of estrangement following Morsi's isolation. Hamas was accused by Egyptian authorities of meddling in Egyptian affairs and being biased toward the Muslim Brotherhood and Morsi.
Hamas leader in Gaza Yahya Sinwar visited Egypt in May — the first visit after a long hiatus — where he met with Egyptian intelligence officials and agreed on security cooperation to thwart any terrorist attacks on the borders. This was followed by repeated visits from Hamas delegations to Cairo.
In a surprise move, Haniyeh said at a symposium hosted by al-Masry al-Youm in Cairo in February that Hamas was not part of Egypt's banned Muslim Brotherhood.
Haniyeh said, "We are a Palestinian national liberation movement with an Islamic reference. … We have no organizational link to any component outside the borders of Palestine."
In light of these developments, Egypt brokered the truce agreement between the resistance factions in Gaza and Israel and sponsored an initiative to end the Palestinian internal split that was signed in Cairo Oct. 12, 2017.
In February 2019, Egyptian authorities released four Hamas members arrested in 2015 while traveling officially through the Rafah crossing.
Talal Awkal, a political analyst and writer for the local daily Al-Ayyam, described Hamas' stance on the demonstrations as "mature.”
He told Al-Monitor that Hamas' decision to remain silent about what is happening in Egypt falls within the scope of preserving the movement's strong relationship with Cairo. “Egypt is the only gateway available to the 2 million citizens in the Gaza Strip to the outside world, in light of the ongoing Israeli blockade,” Awkal said.
He added, “Hamas has had its share of interventions and positions that have received negative reactions from Egypt."
However, Hamas, which was part of the Muslim Brotherhood’s ideology — before Haniyeh's statement — gradually realized there was no need to act according to the Brotherhood's program and its ensuing cooperation against certain parties, according to Awkal. "Hamas now has concerns on the national scene and needs to deal with the fait accompli, which is that there is a stable regime in Egypt led by Sisi," he explained.
For his part, Hossam al-Dajni, a professor of political science at al-Ummah University in Gaza, pointed to the evolution of the relationship between Cairo and Hamas since 2013. “Since 2013 when Morsi was ousted — which Hamas called 'a coup' — the relationship with the Sisi regime started on the wrong foot amid the hostility witnessed in the media arenas. Then it turned into reconciliation and mutual understanding and security agreements.”
Dajni told Al-Monitor that the Egyptian state and intelligence services that have close relationships with Hamas have received Hamas' decision to remain silent toward the demonstrations with "great satisfaction."
He added that Hamas should invest and maintain a good relationship with Cairo, regardless of who leads the country.