Today, Hamas is the most significant factor defining Egyptian policies toward Palestine. On May 1, 2017, Hamas released its updated founding charter, in which it accepted the two-state solution and broke with its long-standing rejection of a political settlement between the Palestinians and the Israelis within the 1967 borders. However, the government of Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi was looking for a different break from Hamas’s previous positions—the movement’s detachment from the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, which the old charter recognized as the patron organization. In the updated charter, Hamas dropped the reference to the Muslim Brotherhood and defined itself as a liberation and resistance movement for which Islam represents the final frame of reference. In the government-controlled media, Egyptian officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity welcomed the change.
Relations between the Egyptian government and Hamas were severely restrained after the Egyptian army’s coup on July 3, 2013, that removed the Muslim Brotherhood from the echelons of state power. The post-coup government mistrusted Hamas, which was seen as a proxy of the Brotherhood. Ill-founded claims that Hamas activists were smuggling weapons to the Muslim Brothers and implicated in terrorist attacks in Sinai made the rounds in the Egyptian media, resulting in rising anti-Hamas sentiments. The borders between Egypt and Gaza became a highly contentious issue, especially the underground tunnels that were always in use to smuggle goods to the besieged Gaza strip and were either ignored or tolerated by previous Egyptian governments. Starting in 2013, the tunnels were perceived as a breach that undermines Egyptian national security. Military and security troops flooded the tunnels several times and undertook other measures to establish Egyptian control over the borders. The deteriorating security situation in Sinai pushed Sisi’s government to confront Hamas with even more drastic steps, including freezing contacts between the movement and the Egyptian General Intelligence that was historically in constant conversation and negotiation with Hamas.
When Israel’s war on Gaza broke out on July 8, 2014, Sisi, unlike previous Egyptian leaders, did not move diplomatically to mediate an end to the Israeli military operations or a ceasefire. Punishing Hamas and reducing its military capabilities seemed to be a shared objective between the governments of Israel and Egypt. Wide segments of the Egyptian public seemed to buy into their government’s rhetoric, accepting that Hamas represents a threat to national security and that Israel’s actions do not contradict Egyptian interests. During the war, there were no public demonstrations in Egyptian cities in support of the “Palestinian brethren” and nongovernmental relief convoys headed to Gaza were stopped by Egyptian authorities—which was unusual in Egypt’s long-standing involvement in the Arab-Israeli conflict and in Palestinian affairs.
The 2014 war represents the apex of the Egypt-Hamas crisis. Since then, Egyptian authorities—clearly emboldened by the military blow Israel dealt to the Hamas movement—have gradually restored contact with Hamas, demanding a clear detachment from the Muslim Brotherhood and improved collaboration on border security. In return, Sisi has promised to implement a more flexible scheme for the border crossings between Egypt and Gaza. For the trapped civilian population in Gaza, the systematic closure of the crossings in 2013 and 2014 increased Palestinian suffering. Regular openings of the crossings have become a much-needed lifeblood for Gaza, especially considering the Egyptian military and security campaign against the underground tunnels.
As the updated charter indicates, Hamas has moved to meet Egypt’s demand for detachment from the Brotherhood. During the press conference in which he announced the updated charter, Khaled Meshaal stressed that Hamas has no organizational ties with the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood and that it remains an independent Palestinian organization that is not subject to any form of outside control. Other Hamas leaders have persistently asserted that the movement fully respects the sovereignty of the Egyptian government, does not meddle in Egyptian domestic affairs, and understands Egyptian security needs. Regarding the second major Egyptian demand for better collaboration to help contain rising terrorist threats in Sinai, Egyptian government officials have been depicting a positive picture of Hamas, serving to satisfy Egyptian concerns. In addition, the border crossings have regularly opened since Hamas released its updated charter.
Despite its tensions with Hamas and entanglement in Egyptian domestic politics, the Sisi government has kept intact Egypt’s traditional commitment to a peaceful two-state solution through negotiating with the Palestinian Authority and Israeli government. However, since 2013, Cairo has not been pushing regionally and internationally for the renewal of serious peace negotiations. Ongoing political instability and rising terrorist threats at home have led the Sisi government to focus on internal affairs. Also, the elevated security cooperation between the Egyptian and Israeli governments against Islamist terrorists operating in Sinai has limited Egypt’s options in putting forward alternative diplomatic initiatives that might alienate the Israeli side; a blatant example of these new determinants of Egypt’s Palestine policy is the Egyptian withdrawal in 2016 of a proposed and U.S.-backed United Nations Security Council resolution to condemn the settlement activities in the West Bank. The Egyptian delegation withdrew its proposed resolution upon the request of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and then U.S. president-elect Donald Trump.
In the near term, the Egyptian government will most likely continue its rapprochement with Hamas and at the same time keep facing the movement with new security-related demands. The wider Egyptian role in mediating internal Palestinian conflicts and in brokering a peaceful settlement of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict will continue to decline both in scope and significance.