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Nov 18, 2012 | 20:25 GMT

5 mins read

Egypt: The Muslim Brotherhood's Disagreement on Hamas

KHALED DESOUKI/AFP/Getty Images
Summary

Disagreements have appeared within the leadership of Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood over the issue of supporting Hamas in the current conflict with Israel, Egyptian newspaper Al-Ahram reported Nov. 18. During a leadership meeting convened to discuss how to deal with the situation, the deputy guide of the Muslim Brotherhood, Khairat el-Shater, said Egypt could not allow the smuggling of weapons into the Gaza Strip. The core disagreement is between those who say Cairo needs to focus on using the current crisis to support Hamas and those who say Egypt needs to support Hamas but also deal with Israel's concerns.

In a general sense, the Egyptian Brotherhood is supportive of Hamas, given that Hamas is the Palestinian incarnation of the Muslim Brotherhood. But the current crisis comes at a time when the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood is no longer an opposition movement. Its senior leader, Mohammed Morsi, is the president of the republic. 

The Brotherhood's Limitations

Being in government, the Brotherhood faces considerable limitations in how it manages its relations with Hamas. As the country's largest political movement, its first priority is to consolidate and enhance its own political power. This immediate goal entails securing Egypt's national interests. 

The Brotherhood cannot afford to be seen by the country's powerful military establishment or even the general public as being careless with the country's security. The Brotherhood can push the narrative that it is seeking a revision of the 1978 Camp David Accords with Israel, but it cannot allow Hamas' interests to lead to a situation where the treaty is jeopardized and the current fighting in Gaza spreads to Egypt. At the same time, the Brotherhood cannot afford to abandon Hamas — both for ideological and political reasons. The Brotherhood's Islamist credentials are undermined if it is seen as not helping Hamas and Gaza. Not only would it create dissension within its own ranks, but the Salafists and the jihadists would also love the opportunity to show that the Brotherhood has become just an Islamist version of the Hosni Mubarak regime.

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This explains el-Shater's remarks and the internal struggle to devise a policy that balances Egypt's national imperatives with the Brotherhood's commitment to its Palestinian Islamist counterpart. From the point of view of el-Shater and his allies in the Brotherhood, they cannot simply behave as a Hamas ally and allow weapons smuggling to continue. They must find a way to support Hamas without wrecking ties with Israel. It is no surprise that el-Shater is the one pushing his movement to look at the issue from the perspective of a government and not just as a political party; though he is the no. 2 man in the movement, el-Shater is the most influential individual within the Brotherhood largely due to his status as a business tycoon, which allowed him to become the group's chief strategist.

Despite being a committed ideologue, el-Shater is also a pragmatist who has not been afraid to deviate from the norm on a number of recent occasions. The movement was against running for the presidency, especially after winning the parliamentary elections, but el-Shater encouraged it to do so and secured for himself its candidacy. During the rioting that targeted the U.S. Embassy in the wake of the anti-Islamic film a couple of months ago, el-Shater wrote a letter that was published in the Sept. 13 issue of The New York Times saying his movement and the Egyptian government did not hold the U.S. government or its people responsible for the production of the film and calling for an investigation into the security lapse that resulted in the breach of the U.S. diplomatic compound in Cairo. 

Therefore, it is very likely that el-Shater will be the one leading the government in devising its policy on restoring the truce between Gaza and Israel and, more important, determining how Egypt under a Brotherhood presidency will manage the country's diplomacy with Israel.

The Brotherhood's Policy Toward Israel

Ever since Morsi became president, a key question has been how he will he handle the Egyptian-Israeli relationship. Until last week, the movement was in no rush to make a decision on the issue. The war in Gaza seems to have forced the Brotherhood's hand and accelerated the movement's timetable on the matter. Managing the country's relationship with Israel, especially when it relates to Gaza and at a time of crisis such as this, is all very new for the Brotherhood.

The Brotherhood is likely using its relationship with Hamas to guarantee calm on Gaza-Israel border. Egypt's governing party is probably telling Hamas that, because the Brotherhood just got into the presidency, it can go only so far in helping Hamas and that the Palestinian movement's actions could undermine the Brotherhood — something that would not be in the interest of either. Hamas likely agrees but is seeking a way out of the current turmoil that would provide the rulers of Gaza some strategic advantage. 

The question that remains is how different the Brotherhood-led administration will be from the ousted Mubarak government. While it has already emerged as much more sympathetic to Hamas than its predecessor, the Brotherhood will not back Hamas at the cost of Egyptian-Israeli relations.

Thus, the question is not if but how Egypt's Brotherhood-led government can get Hamas to halt rocket fire. This would entail giving Hamas something in exchange for a commitment to a cease-fire. For Cairo to do so, it needs Israel to agree to certain things as well, such as not carrying out assassinations against Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad figures. Simply put, Egypt is caught in an extremely uncomfortable position.

The key thing is that the Muslim Brotherhood has been pushed into a situation — much sooner than it would have preferred — where it is having to work out its policy for dealing with Israel for the long haul.

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