Hamas is on the move, both literally and figuratively, but how far it
can and will go very much remains to be determined.
Hamas is in an impossible position, given the regional realignments
following from the Arab uprisings, and is frantically trying to adjust
without paying too high a price.
For more than a decade, Hamas’ strategy was based on being
simultaneously allied with both the Sunni Muslim Brotherhood network
and the, essentially, Shiite, Iranian-led alliance. This incongruous
ideological contortion was made possible by a narrative embraced by
both of these broader anti-status quo alignments: that the Middle East
was the site of a trans-historic battle between a “culture of
resistance” and a “culture of accommodation.”
This narrative has collapsed completely, and is rapidly being replaced
by a new sectarian order pitting Sunni actors, including both Arab
governments and Islamists, as well as Turkey, against what is now
perceived as the non- or even anti-Sunni alliance led by Iran. This
realignment has been most starkly illustrated in Syria, whose
pro-Iranian government is now supported entirely by non-Sunni forces
in the Middle East and opposed by virtually all Sunni ones.
Hamas can no longer have a foot in each of these camps when they are
increasingly at odds, often in existential ways. The movement’s
political bureau cannot long remain based in Damascus since the Syrian
Muslim Brotherhood is a core part of the uprising trying to overthrow
the regime of Bashar al-Assad. The break with Assad also means a break
Hamas needs not only a new home but also new sponsors and a new
regional profile, since the strategic landscape in which it operates
has shifted so dramatically.
Literally on the move, its de facto “prime minister” in Gaza, Ismail
Haniyyeh, is planning a tour of Arab states, beginning with Qatar and
possibly including Turkey. Khaled Meshaal, who heads Hamas’ political
bureau, meanwhile, has been trying to engineer a reconciliation with
Jordan, and has been planning a trip there that has yet to happen.
Both sides insist this has not been canceled.
Figuratively on the move, Meshaal, according to Palestinian President
Mahmoud Abbas, has agreed that resistance to occupation must be
nonviolent and must seek to create a Palestinian state based on the
1967 borders. A spokesman for Hamas leaders in Gaza appeared to
confirm these commitments, but reiterated that Hamas would not
This apparently difficult readjustment has exposed latent tensions
within Hamas. The organization is divided along multiple axes, but the
most obvious is the division between many in the leadership in Gaza,
which is entrenched in power and only stands to lose from any changes,
and the external leadership, which has no choice but to urgently find
new headquarters and patrons.
This squabble has been most publicly expressed in an ongoing feud
between Meshaal and a Hamas hardliner in Gaza, Mahmoud Zahhar. In
May, Zahhar was harshly critical of Meshaal for recognizing the
authority of Abbas and the Palestine Liberation Organization to
negotiate with Israel. Worse still, he questioned the authority of the
political bureau itself, claiming, “the leadership is here [in Gaza],
and the part that is abroad is just a part of that.”
However, Meshaal reportedly retains the support of key Hamas leaders,
including Ahmed Jabari, the head of its paramilitary Ezzedine
al-Qassam brigades. The group reportedly imposed “severe disciplinary
measures” against Zahhar in response to his challenge to the authority
of Meshaal and the political bureau.
The big question is whether Hamas’ need to adjust to the changing Arab
political order will compel the movement to moderate its positions.
Probably not if Hamas can help it, for it remains locked in a
long-term power struggle with Fatah over leadership of the Palestinian
national movement. Yet its ability to remain a viable contender for
such leadership cannot be based on Islamist social conservatism alone.
If it cannot outbid the PLO when it comes to the struggle with Israel,
it’s hard to see what its broad appeal will be.
Hamas is hoping that the Arab uprisings will strengthen its hand by
bringing its Muslim Brotherhood allies to power in numerous Arab
states. It has reportedly recently formally joined an international
umbrella group of the Brotherhood movement. But as it has to abandon
the Iranian-Syrian alliance and explore deeper relations with Qatar,
Egypt and even Jordan, Hamas will be dealing with states that, at
least for now, will not be willing to take responsibility for the
movement’s traditional policies and actions.
The outcome of the Arab uprisings and realignment writ large will
probably determine the future of Hamas. Fatah, too, will have to
adjust to the emerging strategic and political environment. These new
regional realities will probably affect the future of both
organizations more than anything the Palestinian groups decide
independently or between themselves.
Because Christopher Hitchens was so politically confrontational and
devastating to his opponents, the public is largely unaware of his
intense personal generosity and kindness. Time and again, he went far
beyond the normal duties of friendship. As our mutual friend Michael
Weiss aptly puts it, “Friendship was his ideology.”
I instantly bonded with Hitch in 1998 when I tagged along to an
interview he did with a friend of mine over lunch. The friend left
after an hour, but we stayed at the restaurant talking about politics,
literature, and history. Lunch turned into dinner, and finally his
wife, Carol, summoned him home on the grounds that 10 hours straight
of talking to anyone was more than enough for one sitting. This set
the stage for an abiding friendship based on such marathon
His loyalty never ceased to amaze me. In March 2002, David Horowitz
published an article outrageously suggesting that I had secretly
celebrated the 9/11 attacks before publicly condemning them on
television. Christopher immediately sent him a blistering email
insisting that this allegation was not only untrue but “something that
could not be true.” (Emphasis in the original.) Indeed, he put his
relationship with Horowitz on the line, writing, “I’m willing to be a
mutual friend if you will accept my pledged word that you have (and I
wish I could say inadvertently) grossly wronged a decent man.”
Horowitz immediately issued a full retraction and apology.
On a more recent occasion, when he was at the start of his last book
tour, just before falling ill, I had a personal crisis. He was in
Chicago when I phoned him. His instant response was “Right, I’m
canceling tomorrow’s events, and coming back to D.C. for a day. We
will sit together and talk this through man to man.” And he did.
So as the world eulogizes a great mind and fierce spirit, I’m left
with profoundly moving personal memories of one of the kindest,
sweetest, and most loyal of men.
I’ve been appearing on television talk shows for more than 12 years
and I’ve never found them to be an emotional experience, until last
Sunday, that is.
During a routine program on Al-Hurra reviewing recent events in
Tunisia, I was suddenly overwhelmed by an astonishing realization: For
the first time in my life, I was having a conversation about politics
in an Arab state that was entirely normal, modern and healthy.
For the first half-hour or so, I found myself in the middle of an
argument with Al-Nahda MP Abd al-Lateeh al-Makki and another
representative of his party on one side, and Democratic National
Movement MP Tawfic Ayashi on the other. Naturally, they were
quarreling about the new 26-clause temporary constitution passed by
the Constitutional Assembly that now serves as the parliament.
As expected, and as has already been thoroughly played out in the
Tunisian and other Arab media, Ayashi repeated the basic complaint of
the opposition: that the new legislation was cooked up behind the
scenes by the troika coalition of Nahda, the Congress for the
Republic, and Ettakatol, and that the parliamentary procedure had
essentially been a sham.
Al-Makki and his Nahda colleague predictably dismissed these
allegations, insisting that proper procedures had been followed, and
pointing out that 141 out of 217 assembly members had voted for the
new law and that, in any case, the whole thing was temporary.
As I navigated between these positions, both of which have some merit,
I was suddenly struck by the uniqueness of the conversation in terms
of contemporary Arab politics. The argument itself was not only
predictable, but also banal and mundane. But what was really shocking,
indeed overwhelming, to me was what was missing from this bickering
and its context. There was no monarch, no dictatorship, no junta or
oppressive military, no killings, no militias, no riots, and no hint
of civil conflict, foreign interference or invasion.
It was just plain old squabbling between MPs from different factions
about legislation, procedure, who does or does not have a mandate, and
whether backroom deals or open debate is propelling the new laws and
the formation of the new government.
It was ugly, as politics always is, but it was also stunningly
beautiful. It’s been many decades since any Arab society has found
itself in this position: building a real, genuine democracy. Indeed,
one could easily make the case that this is the first time an Arab
state has ever really done so.
I made this point with some passion, and I had to hold my emotions in
check with difficulty. On the substantive issues, I had to agree with
the opposition that what was happening was largely cooked up by the
coalition, but this is how parliaments tend to operate.
I thought the Nahda MPs were basically right that 141 votes were
sufficient for a temporary constitution, but that it must prove quite
temporary not only because it lacks a broad-based mandate but also
because it is insufficiently detailed and leaves much to be
determined. The permanent constitution cannot be based on 141 votes
out of 217 and will need a stronger mandate than that.
The biggest bone of contention was Article 8 of the new law, which
holds that the president must be, among other more reasonable
qualifications, a Muslim. Host Mohamed Ali Haidari and I both pressed
the Nahda MPs vigorously on the issue and their defenses were
At first they tried to say that since this same provision was also in
the constitution of deposed dictator Ben Ali, they hadn’t introduced
anything new. What, I asked, was the point of the revolution if the
dictator’s constitution was to be regarded as a source of legitimacy?
Al-Makki then tried to suggest that I simply didn’t know enough about
Arab or Muslim societies, that this is a universal and
noncontroversial provision in Arab states (which I pointed out is not
true), and that non-Muslim Tunisians don’t feel discriminated against,
so it’s no big deal.
My response was that “I need no instruction on Arab or Muslim culture
from this Islamist,” and that because indeed there’s no real
possibility of a Christian or Jew becoming the president of Tunisia,
“your law is not only ridiculous, it’s superfluous.” “And,” I
concluded, “It has got to go!” Appropriately enough, this proved the
last word of the hour-long conversation.
But I floated out of the studio with a feeling of real elation.
Tunisians have created a fledgling but genuine, working democracy, in
which the arguments are about backroom deals versus parliamentary
procedures, what kind of mandate is sufficient for core legislation,
and the legitimacy of discriminatory laws. Its very banality is its
The magnitude of Tunisia’s achievement must not be underestimated.
Assuming they can keep it, this should show what’s possible in the
rest of the Arab world in the long run.
The preliminary results of the first round of the elections in Egypt
for the new constituent assembly were both predictable and sobering.
The strong showing of the Muslim Brotherhood was virtually inevitable.
They’ve had at least 30 years’ head start on almost everybody else
since being in effect decriminalized by Anwar Sadat. Their Freedom and
Justice Party is by far the best organized in the country.
Anyone surprised by this result has been sleeping through recent
Naturally, the liberal parties fared badly. For the most part they
barely campaigned at all and are fragmented into a dizzying array of
Secularists and liberals have not had time to create effective party
organizations that can actually win elections. However, they have a
far more onerous task ahead of them. The challenge facing Arab
liberals is to define an entirely new political orientation: a
contemporary Arab liberalism free from the stigma of supposedly
“secular” oppressive regimes.
This is inevitably going to take a great deal of time, effort and
public education. At present, post-dictatorship Arab liberalism is
largely defined by what it is against—Islamism and the old
regimes—rather than what it is for.
In Tunisia, the secular groups mainly focused their campaign on what
is bad about the Islamists rather than articulating a clear vision for
the future. In Egypt, most of the liberals barely bothered campaigning
at all, and much of their efforts in the immediate run-up to the
campaign focused on protests in Tahrir Square.
Not only did the Muslim Brotherhood consolidate their competitive
advantage during these last weeks by continuing to focus on the
election, they handled the protest movement skillfully.
By refusing to openly join the protesters but at the same time
strongly condemning the crackdown by the military, they projected an
image of being above the fray and more responsible than either the
military or the demonstrators. Meanwhile, they hedged their bets
slightly by not preventing a good deal of their youth from
participating in the protests, though without any official permission.
It’s not that this won them many new friends. On the contrary, some
people felt betrayed by their ambivalent position. But, crucially, it
didn’t make them many new enemies either. Those inclined to be angry
with the protesters, or with the military, or both, were unlikely to
see the Brotherhood as the chief culprits.
What is most troubling is that Salafist parties performed better than
expected, and they represent a religious extremism of an entirely
different order than the Brotherhood. They too have long-standing
networks that have been quickly transformed into ad hoc electoral
machines, which, along with significant foreign funding, especially
from the Gulf, translated into a deeply troubling success.
Unlike in Tunisia, where the electoral system was fairly
straightforward and people knew they were voting for an assembly that
will be in charge of writing the constitution, in Egypt much remains
profoundly murky. It is distinctly possible that Islamists have, in
fact, peaked too early, given that they have attained dominance in an
assembly with extremely limited powers.
According to the rules promulgated by the military authorities, which
are very controversial but remain definitive for now, the constitution
will be drafted by a 100-member body, in which the assembly will only
receive 20 seats. The assembly can only choose between candidates from
an array of other organizations for the other 80 seats.
Moreover, while the Brotherhood now insists on the right to form a
government, nothing in Egypt’s presidential system permits them to do
so. Egypt still has a presidency, which is in effect being exercised
by the military, and the Brotherhood is in a logical and political
bind because, by placing such an emphasis on the elections, in effect
it has confirmed the role of the military as the de facto president.
They can hardly, at least in the meantime, dismiss its authority on
other matters having upheld it in this most crucial function.
But the potential seeds of a confrontation with the military over
power have obviously been sown. The Brotherhood and its allies are
likely to strongly push for a shift toward a parliamentary system on
the grounds that they have won a mandate. They have certainly acquired
powerful new leverage, but the military remains enormously potent as
In June, I described a potential power-sharing agreement in Egypt
leaving the military in de facto control of defense and national
security, with a foreign policy-oriented presidency and a parliament
with broad powers in domestic affairs.
Nothing that has transpired since has altered my view that this is the
most likely and, indeed, optimistic scenario for the country.
So, it can only be one cheer for the Egyptian elections. In many ways
they are an important step forward, but the results are deeply
troubling, the legal and constitutional framework highly contentious,
and the path forward still very fraught and murky.