The series of armed assaults that took place Aug. 18 in Israel underscores the dilemma Cairo is facing in trying to simultaneously manage a shaky political transition at home and its increasingly complicated relationship with Israel.Egypt hopes to address this dilemma by bringing Hamas under its direct influence.
The Egyptian military-intelligence elite sees such a move — which could be facilitated by the crisis in Syria — as increasingly necessary, but it still carries substantial risk.
Security Concerns Building Again in the Sinai
Israel claimed the Aug. 18 attackers had infiltrated southern Israel from the Sinai Peninsula, where the Egyptian army on Aug. 12 launched Operation Eagle and deployed around 1,000 troops backed by armoured vehicles and commandos to contain a rise in jihadist activity in the region.
The Egyptian security and military presence in the Sinai is regulated by the Camp David Accords, and any shift in this presence must be negotiated with Israel — Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reportedly approved the latest Egyptian military deployment to the Sinai. Israel’s concern over jihadist activity in the Sinai spreading to Israel currently outweighs its concern over Egypt’s military presence in the Sinai buffer region.
Egypt has faced a jihadist threat in the Sinai region for years, but the regime of ousted President Hosni Mubarak was largely successful in keeping this threat in check.
However, the instability that began in Egypt this past January and led to Mubarak’s ouster created a security vacuum in the Sinai when police forces abruptly withdrew from the area, allowing smugglers and Salafist-jihadist groups to strengthen their foothold in the desert region.
Such groups, whose ability to operate in this area depends heavily on cooperation from local Bedouins, have been suspected of responsibility for attacks on police stations and patrols as well as most if not all of five recent successful attacks on the El Arish natural gas pipeline that runs from Egypt to Israel.
Along with this rise in militant activity, a previously unknown al Qaeda franchise calling itself al Qaeda in the North Sinai started promoting itself with fliers posted in mosques in the Egyptian Sinai city of El Arish following the first evening of Ramadan.
The group proclaimed a campaign to transform the Sinai into an Islamic Emirate, address the injustices suffered by Bedouins, lift the blockade on Gaza and dissolve the Camp David agreements.
The group said it was planning attacks on Egyptian police stations and security forces and notably pitted itself against Hamas in accusing the organisation of not respecting Shariah in Gaza.
The main and immediate strategic intent of this group is to create an Egyptian-Israeli crisis that will undermine Cairo’s influence in the Sinai and give militant groups room to expand. This supposed new al Qaeda franchise is most likely another name for Takfir wal-Hijra, a Sinai-based Salafist group that has been able to expand its operations in the current security vacuum. It may be operating independently or following recent calls by new al Qaeda chief Ayman al-Zawahiri for jihadists to get more active in Egypt, or even maintaining sporadic contact with the al Qaeda core.
As Israeli defence Minister Ehud Barak articulated Aug. 18 following the attacks, the “incident reflects the weakness of the Egyptian hold on Sinai and the expansion of activity there by terror elements.” The question now is how Egypt plans to address this growing threat.
Egypt’s Islamist Militant Management
Egypt’s military regime is already facing a significant challenge in trying to manage a political transition at home among varied opposition groups. Its strategy so far to contain the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood (MB) has been to allow the emergence of various Islamist actors, including Salafist groups, to broaden competition in the political arena. Sowing divisions among political Islamists can be a tricky process (and one that is extremely worrying for Israel), especially as Egypt also has to worry about preventing coordination between these groups and militant factions in nearby Gaza, such as Hamas. The security vacuum in the Sinai is now compounding these concerns as the Egyptian regime has been struggling to reassert its influence over groups operating in the Sinai-Gaza borderland. As a recent example, Egyptian newspaper Al-Masry Al-Youm reported Aug. 15 that the Hamas government in the Gaza Strip has refused multiple Egyptian requests to hand over Palestinian militants that were suspected of having participated in a recent attack on a police station in El Arish and who allegedly escaped back into Gaza via tunnels.
Egypt’s growing frustration over Hamas has led some leading members of the Egyptian security establishment to make the case that Cairo needs to do more to bring Hamas under its control. According to a STRATFOR source, the director of the Egyptian intelligence service, Maj. Gen. Murad Mi’rafi, has been trying to convince Supreme Council of the Armed Forces leader Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi to allow Hamas to move its headquarters from Damascus to Cairo. Mi’rafi’s reasoning is that by allowing Hamas to set up its headquarters in Cairo, it will reciprocate by doing more to cooperate with Egyptian authorities to stem the activities of Salafist-jihadists in the Sinai, primarily by denying them sanctuary in Gaza and by sharing information on their operations. After all, the Salafist-jihadists are a direct threat to Hamas’ ability to dominate the Palestinian Islamist landscape.
Talks between Egypt and Hamas over relocating Hamas offices to Cairo have been in the works since at least early May, when rumours first started circulating that the Hamas politburo, led by Khaled Meshaal, might be moving its headquarters from the Syrian capital. Hamas’ relationship with the Syrian regime has deteriorated significantly in recent months as Hamas has found itself in the awkward position of being politically pressured by Damascus to defend the Syrian regime in the face of widespread protests and intensifying crackdowns. Hamas’ refusal to issue statements or organise demonstrations in support of regime of President Bashar al Assad has created a great deal of friction between the Syrian government and Hamas leadership, leading the Syrian army to attack the al-Raml Palestinian refugee camp in Latakia on Aug. 13. The Syrian army offensive in Latakia was perceived by the Hamas politburo in Damascus as a direct attack on the organisation and, according to a Hamas source, was one of the main reasons Meshaal decided to visit Cairo on Aug. 17 to discuss the relocation proposal. It should be noted that Hamas official Salah al-Badawil on Aug. 17 denied the talks in Cairo dealt with the politburo relocation issue and instead downplayed the talks as dealing primarily with Hamas’ efforts to improve cooperation with Egypt in managing the Rafah border crossing into Gaza.
The Egyptian regime seems to still be considering welcoming Hamas. Having the Hamas politburo based in Cairo creates a dependency relationship in which Hamas will be beholden to the Egyptian authorities for the free flow of money and goods to sustain its operations. This level of clout has proved highly useful to Syria and Iran, which are pressuring Hamas to remain in Damascus for fear of losing this leverage in the Palestinian territories to Egypt and its Arab allies.
By hosting the Hamas politburo, Egyptian authorities would also have much deeper insight into the group’s activities to keep Hamas and its proxies contained in Gaza. Egypt could use a tighter relationship with Hamas for intelligence sharing on the jihadist presence in the Sinai and Gaza, as neither Cairo nor Hamas wants to see such groups expanding their influence at the expense of known groups with narrow militant goals like Hamas. Egypt, in turn, could use an intelligence boost with Hamas to further its security relationship with Israel and reassume its position as the primary mediator between Israel and Palestinian armed groups.
The Egyptian MB, which has made a conscious effort to cooperate with the ruling military council during Egypt’s political transition, also seems to be in favour of the Hamas politburo move to Cairo. A Hamas political presence in Cairo would theoretically provide the MB with foreign policy leverage once it becomes a domestic political force via elections, as it would be the Egyptian political entity with the closest ties to the Islamist Palestinian organisation. Moreover, as the MB tries to navigate the post-Mubarak landscape, it wants to ensure its colleagues in Hamas do not engage in actions that could undermine the Muslim Brotherhood’s political agenda and give the military regime the excuse to crack down. From the MB’s point of view, the more influence the Egyptian security apparatus has over Hamas, the less likely Hamas will become a point of contention in the MB’s delicate negotiations with the military. Notably, Meshaal also met with MB leader Mohammed Badie and other members at the group’s Cairo headquarters during his visit.
Hosting Hamas in Cairo would not come without risks, however. With more influence over the group comes responsibility, and Egypt would have to accept that tighter control over Hamas means Israel will hold Egypt accountable for Hamas’ actions. Egypt would thus be gambling that it will be able to sufficiently influence the group to contain its militant activity and resolve the issue of rival jihadist groups eroding Hamas’ clout in Gaza. It is also unclear whether such a move would exacerbate existing fault lines in the Hamas leadership. The question moving forward is whether Syria’s rapidly deteriorating relationship with Hamas along with a growing threat of jihadist activity spreading from the Sinai will be enough to drive Cairo and Hamas together.
This post originally appeared at STRATFOR, the world’s leading private intelligence firm. To get access to more intelligence from STRATFOR, click here.