Over the last three years, even when Mohammed Morsi was president, Egyptian media outlets have carried out an unprecedented campaign against Hamas. Egyptian hostility toward the movement has grown since July 2014, when many Egyptians held Hamas responsible for the bloodshed in Gaza after Israeli military strikes against the Strip.
The Egyptian media have linked Hamas to several crimes: the storming of Egyptian prisons; killing protesters in Tahrir Square during the January 25 Revolution; the bombings at Karam al-Kawadis military base in November 2014 and in El-Arish in January 2015. The media have also linked the movement to various crises in Egypt, such as the gasoline and diesel fuel shortages and the power outages, prompting media personality Ahmed Moussa to call for Egyptian forces to strike Hamas camps in Gaza on his TV show “Ala Mas’ouliyati.”
Egyptian lawyers Samir Sabri and Ashraf Saeed filed a lawsuit against Hamas, teaming up with the State Litigation Authority, which legally represents the Egyptian state, demanding that Egypt consider the group a terrorist organization, in light of its involvement in the aforementioned terrorist acts on Egyptian territory. In February 2015, the Cairo Court for Urgent Mattersruled in favor of deeming the movement a terrorist organization.
Yet the Egyptian government surprised everyone in March 2015 by defending Hamas and challenging the court’s ruling. This change of heart was due to the significant damage caused by the decision to Egyptian foreign policy. Egyptians were in a state of astonishment and wonder regarding the contradictory opinions of the Egyptian government.
In this context, Hassan Nafaa, head of Cairo University’s political science department, told Al-Monitor, “The fact that the government supported those who filed the lawsuit to consider Hamas a terrorist organization, then challenged the same ruling, highlights the state of confusion within the state and the irresponsible media chaos.”
Nafaa said that the government’s challenge of the ruling is a welcome development and is tantamount to a correction of the negative circumstances of Egyptian foreign policy, since the ruling of the Court for Urgent Matters arose from a non-specialized court. The negative circumstances of Egypt’s foreign policy include Hamas’ rejection of Egypt’s role in the Palestinian cause, thus depicting Egypt as a strategic Israeli ally, which does not make Egypt popular in the wider Arab world, where many believe that the Israeli occupation of Palestine should be resisted. Another negative circumstance is Iran’s acquisition of a new military wing in the region, which may push Hamas to eschew an alliance with the Egyptian regime and form one with Iran.
The same court also announced in January 2015 that it was not fit to rule on whether Hamas is a terrorist organization. Nafaa noted that some individuals were attempting to get closer to the regime and please it, like certain judges, Sabri and an adviser to the Egyptian State Lawsuits Authority who cooperated with the lawyers. All were trying to stand by the regime and fight Hamas, which opposes the current Egyptian regime, but their stances actually harmed the regime and its foreign policy.
Nafaa explained that the Egyptian government should differentiate between the political conflict with Hamas, whereby the current government considers Hamas an extension of the Muslim Brotherhood and thus a threat, and the pivotal regional role of the Egyptian state in the Palestinian issue.
Egypt’s role in the Palestinian cause started when the cause itself began in 1948. Back then, King Farouk of Egypt sent an army to defend Palestine. This involvement was passed down from leader to the other, from Gamal Abdel Nasser to Mohammed Morsi. Egypt actually recommended Palestine initiate the PLO to represent the Palestinian people. Moreover, Egypt played a significant role in the Oslo Accord, which provided for the creation of a Palestinian interim self-government. Egypt also supported lifting the Israeli blockade on Gaza.
“The reasons that pushed the Egyptian government to change its position include the fact that the coming stage will witness shared interests between Fatah and Hamas, paving the way for the establishment of a Palestinian national unity government,” Nafaa said. “The Egyptian government has huge political and security interests in this being completed, most notably involving Fatah in the process to secure the Rafah border crossing, so as not to leave it in the hands of Hamas alone.”
On the other hand, the Saudi regime — which is a major supporter of the current Egyptian regime — seeks to form a Sunni alliance to confront the growing Shiite influence in the Middle East. Saudi Arabia wants Hamas to be a part of this alliance, in exchange for Riyadh providing the movement support, thus compensating for the support Iran provides Hamas. Nafaa said Saudi Arabia and Egypt have consulted one another about the need to not label Hamas a terrorist organization.
Ahmed al-Qawaisni, a former assistant to Egypt’s minister of foreign affairs, told Al-Monitor that the ruling to consider Hamas a terrorist organization can be challenged under Egyptian law.
Media reports noted that the State Litigation Authority adviser — who supported the lawsuit to label Hamas a terrorist organization — made a decision without obtaining permission from authority Chairman Ali Sukkar. The Egyptian state challenged the ruling by citing the president’s Law No. 8 of 2015, whereby a specialized court was formed to handle terrorist entities. The Egyptian state thus considers this case a political one, and that politics should not figure in legal cases.
Qawaisni said that the Egyptian government challenged the ruling because it directly harmed the Palestinian cause, by converting the Palestinian struggle for national liberation into terrorism. Israeli political circles exploited the court’s initial decision and used it to show the world that Palestinian resistance is terrorism.
Maj. Gen. Mohamad Ali Bilal, former deputy chief of staff of the armed forces, told Al-Monitor that the initial ruling of the Cairo Court for Urgent Matters was a source of embarrassment and caused a major political dilemma for the Egyptian state, since Hamas is a part of the Palestinian state and governs alongside the Fatah movement. Furthermore, Hamas controls the Gaza Strip, which has a common border with Egypt, thus requiring direct security and political coordination between the two sides.
Therefore, the ruling would have forbidden the Egyptian state from dealing directly or indirectly with its Palestinian neighbor, represented by Hamas, which is something that cannot be achieved on the ground. Political interests require direct communications with other states, even if they are hostile ones.
The unprecedented escalation between Hamas and Egypt does not serve the Egyptian cause; it harms the besieged Gaza Strip. Therefore, the Egyptian government’s appeal against the ruling considering Hamas a terrorist group is a step in the right direction. It should be followed by political mediations to alleviate tensions between the two parties.