Palestine Pulse

Who will be Hamas' next leader?

Article Summary
Hamas is expected to hold internal elections that will likely result in a new political bureau head, but the movement has yet to officially announce any plans.

In early September, the Palestinian and Arab press reported that Hamas is preparing for internal elections to select a successor to Khaled Meshaal, the head of its political bureau. The movement neither denied nor confirmed the news.

The talk about Hamas’ internal elections coincided with a surprise visit by the deputy head of Hamas’ political bureau, Ismail Haniyeh, to Saudi Arabia Sept. 4. He was there to perform hajj for the first time since 2006, when he headed the Palestinian government. The Palestinian Maan news agency claimed Sept. 7 that Haniyeh’s visit was political rather than religious, as he had scheduled other political visits after leaving Saudi Arabia. After completing hajj, Haniyeh headed to Qatar Sept. 17 and met with the Hamas leadership based in Doha. No details were made public on what was discussed during the visit.

However, on the same day, Hamas announced in an official statement that Haniyeh would return to Gaza after his visit to Doha. Mousa Abu Marzouk, another deputy head of Hamas’ political bureau, also commented that Haniyeh had no intention of leaving the Gaza Strip for good and settling in Doha and stressed that Haniyeh’s trip was not part of an official visit. Haniyeh denied rumors that the purpose of his visit to Doha was to discuss his replacing Meshaal.

Hamas’ statements indicate that Haniyeh has no intention of making official foreign visits and that he will soon return to Gaza, indicating that he likely hasn’t been internally elected new head of the movement.

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Husam Badran, a Qatar-based Hamas spokesman, told Al-Monitor, “Hamas is pleased by the local, regional and international attention its internal elections are getting, as it is proof of the movement’s importance in the Palestinian cause. However, Hamas rejects any kind of interference that could affect the elections and their results. This is an internal affair, governed by Hamas’ internal regulations that call for finding a replacement for Meshaal.”

Since Hamas is a secretive movement that does not disclose many of its internal procedures, there is no reliable information available about how its leadership is elected. It is known that the movement elects a Shura Council, and while the number of council members is not public information, they include historical, political and regional figures from Hamas, at home and abroad.

The Shura Council, in turn, elects the members of Hamas’ political bureau, the highest executive authority in the movement. The head of the movement is then elected from among the members of the political bureau, whose numbers are also not publicized. Although most of the political bureau's members remain secret, there are a few known figures, such as Haniyeh and Abu Marzouk.

Hamas’ last internal elections were held in 2012, when Meshaal was elected as head. Meshaal’s term ends late this year, and elections are expected to be held in early 2017, according to some Hamas leaders.

Ahmed Youssef, a former political adviser to Haniyeh, was the first Hamas leader to speak publicly about Hamas’ elections. On Sept. 15, he told Al-Quds al-Arabi that the movement’s new leader has yet to be revealed. It could be someone unknown to the media, or a well-known figure such as Haniyeh or Abu Marzouk.

Hamas noted in a Sept. 17 statement that Youssef’s remarks about the internal elections were mere conjecture and not based on factual information.

Youssef Rizqa, Hamas' former information minister, told Al-Monitor, “Hamas has a solid organizational foundation, and according to its electoral regulations, Meshaal’s term ends by the end of 2016 but the deputies cannot simply replace him. Hamas has to hold elections to choose the head of the movement’s political bureau and his deputies, along with other leading positions in the movement. The timetable for these elections is yet to be announced, and Hamas has yet to take any specific actions in this regard.”

Abu Marzouk announced Sept. 17 that Hamas’ internal elections are only a few months away and will take place by the beginning of 2017.

Meanwhile, a Hamas official revealed to Rai Alyoum newspaper on condition of anonymity that the elections will be held between January and April 2017, both within Palestine and abroad. He noted that Meshaal will not run for a third term after already having served for two terms, from 1996 to 2016.

These conflicting statements highlight the secretive nature of the elections and indicate that the movement does not follow a preset timetable for elections.

Naji Sharab, a professor of political science at Al-Azhar University in Gaza, told Al-Monitor, “Hamas is required to abide by its regulations and elect a new head of the political bureau. However, the Palestinian situation, the possibility of reconciliation with Fatah, the regional action to end the war in Syria and Hamas’ efforts to fix its ties with Egypt all require giving Meshaal another year as head of the movement in order for him to be able to settle these issues. If a new leader is elected at this critical time, he will at least need a year or two to arrange the movement’s organizational situation at the expense of other issues. This is why Meshaal’s term should be extended.”

Hamas spokesman Salah al-Bardawil told Al-Monitor, “The elections for Hamas’ political bureau, scheduled to be held before the end of this year, remain confidential. Candidates do not propose a political program, as they do not actually present their candidacy. They are chosen by the movement’s Shura Council.”

Other Palestinian movements are also discussing Hamas’ internal elections. Abdullah Abdullah, a member of Fatah’s Revolutionary Council and head of the Palestinian Legislative Council’s political department, told Al-Monitor, “Fatah wishes for Hamas to remain a strong movement. Fatah will not interfere in Hamas’ choice of its future leader, but it hopes the new leadership will be realistic and take into account the subsequent political developments. Meshaal’s presence outside Palestine may allow him to communicate with leaders and officials abroad, giving him an advantage over other Hamas leaders.”

On the Arab and regional levels, the Saudi Aawsat newspaper reported Sept. 15 that Hamas was considering changes to the internal elections process, in addition to changing the powers of the head and members of the political bureau, as well as the members of the Shura Council.

On Sept. 14, Al Jazeera TV reported it had no definitive news whether Haniyeh or Abu Marzouk would replace Meshaal. For his part, Meshaal had announced Sept. 24 that he would probably not run in the upcoming elections.

Muhanna al-Hubail, a Saudi researcher and the director of the Islamic Center Eastern Studies in Turkey, told Al-Monitor, “According to information I received from inside Hamas, the movement has decided to change its leadership by electing Haniyeh, Abu Marzouk or someone else to replace Meshaal. However, electing a new leader would take two more years, during which Meshaal would remain in charge during the transitional period, in light of the difficult Arab and regional conditions and because of Fatah’s [internal] crisis.”

Hamas remains a secretive movement and does not make its internal affairs public, although the movement has been recently more open about its international relations and about Meshaal’s meetings with foreign officials, the latest of them Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov in Doha on Aug. 17.

However, the details of these elections remain confined to the movement’s closed organizational circles. Perhaps this secrecy stems from the leadership’s desire not to leave room for external influence to tip the scales in favor of one candidate at the expense of another.

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Found in: palestinian politics, palestinian leadership, palestinian elections, mousa abu marzouk, khaled meshaal, ismail haniyeh, hamas

Adnan Abu Amer heads the Political Science and Media Department of Umma University Open Education in Gaza, where he lectures on the history of the Palestinian cause, national security and Israel studies. He holds a doctorate in political history from Damascus University and has published a number of books on the contemporary history of the Palestinian cause and the Arab-Israeli conflict. He also works as a researcher and translator for a number of Arab and Western research centers and writes regularly for a number of Arab newspapers and magazines.

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