Hamas is a total mess.
With the overthrow of former Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi, and the accompanying crisis for Islamists across the region, the organization’s regional strategy lies in tatters. A year ago they were convinced they were on the cusp of a “green wave” of Islamist victories.
The Muslim Brotherhood victory in Egypt, they reasoned, was a harbinger of the Arab political future. Hamas expected the new Egyptian government to end its isolation, help it dominate Palestinian national movement, and transform its strategic relationship with Israel.
But none of that happened. Egypt continued to put its own national interests first. It maintained and even enhanced security cooperation with Israel, kept tight control over border crossings, and launched a campaign against smuggling tunnels, flooding them with raw sewage.
Yet the hope remained that all this was temporary. Eventually the Brotherhood would assert control and deliver a foreign and security policy favorable to Hamas. Even at its high point, that was exceptionally wishful thinking.
Now, however, with Morsi gone and the whole Islamist movement regionally in varying stages of shock and disarray, Hamas finds itself suddenly more isolated, divided, and hapless that it may have ever been since its founding in the late 1980s.
The new Egyptian government, and much of the public, take a decidedly dim view of Hamas. They see it as conniving in the low-level, but extremely dangerous, insurgency in Sinai that greatly intensified after Morsi’s overthrow. Hamas, and the Palestinians living under its misrule, have paid a heavy price for the Egyptian military counteroffensive against Sinai extremists. Egyptian forces reportedly killed 35 Hamas fighters and destroyed 850 smuggling tunnels. Fuel and other shortages, and a financial crisis, have consequently intensified in Gaza.
Egyptian anger is also stoked by a sense that Hamas may have been interfering even more deeply in internal Egyptian affairs, beyond Sinai and the border region. For example, Hamas is being investigated for its alleged participation in a 2011 jailbreak that freed Morsi and several other key Islamist prisoners.
Hamas knows how dangerous these Egyptian, and broader regional, perceptions about its connections to other extremist movements are. They reacted furiously to Fatah’s reference to this interference, calling it nothing short of “incitement.”
Along with the post-euphoric crash following Morsi’s downfall, and the death of the dream of an “Islamic Awakening,” Hamas must also cope with nostalgia about the “good old days” of the now long-lost “axis of resistance.” For most of the last decade, Hamas pulled off the unique and highly implausible balancing act of being both a Sunni Muslim Brotherhood party and a member of the pro-Iranian alliance simultaneously.
The civil war in Syria closed down any room for such a split identity, especially since the Brotherhood in Syria is a key component of the Syrian uprising. Hamas had to essentially choose between abandoning its longstanding headquarters in Damascus and patrons in Tehran, and gamble on the rising tide of Sunni Islamism in post-dictatorship Arab societies.
After much dispute, Hamas’ Political Bureau decided to basically turn its back on Damascus and Tehran, and seek other patrons. Khaled Mishaal was dispatched to Doha and Ankara in search of funding, and his deputy Mousa Abu Marzouk to Cairo for political and logistical support. Against strong opposition from some members, Hamas’ political leadership effectively put all their chips on 32 red in the great Middle East strategic roulette wheel. But the ball just landed on 23 white.
With a predictable degree of schadenfreude, political leaders like Mahmoud Zahar – who lost his seat on the Politburo for his opposition to this gamble – and Hamas’ paramilitary leader Marwan Issa – who never fully broke with the Iranian Republican Guard, as the rocket exchange with Israel last year demonstrated – can now turn to their colleagues and smugly crow: “I told you so.”
Now Hamas cannot really now turn back towards Iran, Syria, and Hezbollah and remain a viable part of the Sunni Muslim Arab world. But they may have one or two more chips yet to play.
Qatar has reportedly scaled back, but not cut off, funding for the group. And the embattled and increasingly desperate Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan may now need them as much as they need him. There is always the possibility regional Islamists might make a comeback, including in Egypt. And their rivals in Fatah are facing significant difficulties of their own, although their options seem broader and more viable.
Lacking any obvious, immediate strategic alternatives, Hamas’ most likely response to this series of calamities is to once again hunker down and hold on to their dominance in Gaza purely on the basis of brute force and repression. And, once again, it will be the people of Gaza, and the Palestinian cause in general, that pay the price for their unending folly.