On May 18, 2021, President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi pledged $500 million for Gazan reconstruction efforts. Just days later on May 21, an Egyptian-mediated ceasefire took effect. At the time of the pledge, 450 buildings in Gaza had been destroyed or badly damaged by the Israeli offensive. Only two weeks later, on June 4, Egyptian construction equipment was observed crossing into Gaza to start the efforts. The Egyptian reconstruction overtures appear to the casual observer as a stark contrast to the regime’s previous efforts to blockade the Gaza strip and demonize Hamas.
A more nuanced examination, however, reveals a complex and often contradictory Egyptian policy. Between 2014 and 2017, the Sisi regime rhetorically vilified Hamas and actively participated in the blockade of the group, but around 2017 it pivoted to a policy of cooperating with Hamas to counter the Islamic State (IS) insurgency in Sinai. Underpinning these seemingly juxtaposed policies, Egypt consistently acts as a mediator between Hamas and its foes (Israel and Fatah), a role essential for both Egypt’s relationship with the United States and its regional influence. The resulting policy decisions often appear contradictory and confusing, complexly rooted in the regime’s multifaceted objectives and the interplay between domestic and foreign policy objectives.
On the domestic front, the demonization of Hamas at one time played an important role in Sisi’s repression campaign against the Muslim Brotherhood, with the Brotherhood cast as conspiring with Hamas to destroy the Egyptian state. Although this rhetoric would wane and give way to a policy of cooperation, this purported collusion provided justification for both continued repression of the Brotherhood and blockade of the Gaza strip, deeply intertwining anti-Hamas rhetoric with domestic Egyptian politics. When the late President Mohammed Morsi was sentenced to death in 2015 for conspiring with foreign organizations, including Hamas and Hezbollah, Hamas was prominently linked to the Brotherhood in plotting to overthrow the Egyptian state. In 2016, this inflamed rhetoric seemed to infect all strata of Sisi’s regime. Early that year, then-interior minister Magdy Abdel Gaffar accused Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood of assassinating the Egyptian public prosecutor Hesham Barakat. Just months later, Ahmed Moussa, a talk show host known for his close links to the security services, called for a coordinated Arab military offensive against Hamas.
This domestic propaganda campaign empowered persistent Egyptian efforts to destroy Hamas’ supply chains, particularly the vital tunnels transporting foodstuffs, fuel, construction materials, and medical supplies into the besieged strip. In March 2014, the Egyptian military reported its destruction of 1,370 tunnels under the border town of Rafah. In September 2015, the Egyptian military attempted to use sea water to flood the tunnels. But the Sisi regime did not limit itself to rhetoric or even a blockade; rather, it employed such heavy-handed tactics to create a buffer zone between itself and Gaza—going as far as destroying 3,255 buildings and 685 hectares of cultivated farmland in Rafah— that Egypt’s actions might amount to war crimes.
Egypt’s public censuring of Hamas waned between 2016 and 2017, as it became apparent that cooperation with Hamas would be essential to counter the Islamic State in the Sinai, and Hamas made substantial efforts to reconcile with the regime through security cooperation and public policy changes. Signs of a rapprochement were visible in March 2016, when a high-level Hamas delegation visited Cairo for security talks. The visit was preceded by an article published in the government daily Al-Ahram calling Hamas a “resistance movement,” dropping the previous label of “terror organization.” This visit was followed by a public visit by Ismail Haniyeh in January 2017 and another in September after his election as leader of Hamas. In the September visit, Haniyeh spoke of a new chapter in bilateral relations, pledged respect for Egyptian national security, and increased security cooperation with the regime. Hamas, in an effort to reconcile with the regime, issued a policy in May 2017 officially ending its association with the Muslim Brotherhood. In October 2017, Ahmed Moussa, the previously mentioned talk show host, justified the rapprochement by highlighting Hamas’ cooperation with the regime against “criminal elements” and the destruction of major smuggling tunnels by the group.
While Hamas was demonized domestically, the active insurgency of the Islamic State (IS) in the Sinai Peninsula precipitated conditions for collaboration with Hamas on counterinsurgency, against the common enemy. Although the regime called Hamas complicit in IS insurgency for propaganda purposes, it began working with the group as an ally against the insurgents in Sinai as tensions increased between IS sympathizers in Gaza and Hamas. On April 30, 2016, Hamas deployed hundreds of its fighters on the border to stop the possible infiltration of IS militants from Sinai to Gaza, in cooperation with the Egyptian military. As part of the security coordination with the regime in the first half of 2017, Hamas arrested 200 Salafi Jihadists with possible links to IS in Gaza. Finding a common enemy in IS, Hamas closely cooperated with the Egyptian security forces during the nation-wide counter insurgency comprehensive operation launched in February 2018. The security cooperation reached its zenith with the start of the construction of a border wall, in February 2020, on both sides of the Sinai-Gaza border under Egyptian supervision. Responding to the shared threat, Hamas pragmatically emerged as a pivotal partner in the regime’s counter-insurgency campaign in Sinai.
Even amidst attempts to blockade and demonize Hamas, the Egyptian regime continued to play the role of mediator between Hamas and its foes, especially Israel—essential to both its relationship with the United States and maintaining Egyptian regional influence. For example, in July 2014, the regime brokered a ceasefire between Hamas and Israel, after fighting led to the death of 2,251 Palestinians and seventy-four Israelis. However, the effective ceasefire was preceded by an attempted proposal without consulting Hamas, which the group refused. This provided the justification for the Israeli ground incursion in 2014— a textbook example of the regime providing diplomatic cover for Israeli military action against Hamas, while simultaneously attempting to play the role of mediator.
The regime’s lengthy relationship with Israel uniquely positions it for this mediating role, ahead of countries like Morocco, the UAE, and Bahrain who only normalized relations with Israel in 2020. Furthermore, only Egypt shares a border with Gaza, increasing their leverage on Hamas, with Cairo often utilizing its ability to control the border crossing to influence Hamas policies. For example, in February 2021, the regime opened the crossing “indefinitely” after Hamas pledged to accept the result of the long delayed Palestinian elections in an effort to “create better condition for the negotiations,” between the Palestinian factions.
The significance of Egypt’s mediator role became more important with the Biden Administration’s early hostility toward Sisi. But even though Biden targeted Sisi directly while campaigning, stating that “no more blank checks for Trump’s favorite dictator,” Biden has maintained the traditional U.S.-Egypt security relationship by approving an arms deal worth $197 million in February 2021. On May 20, Biden publicly praised Sisi’s effort to broker a ceasefire between Hamas and Israel, underscoring the value placed by the administration on the current political status quo, and Egypt’s traditional role as a mediator between Hamas and Israel. Underscoring the administration’s value placed on the regime’s mediating capacity, Secretary of State Antony Blinken visited Cairo shortly after Biden extended praise, in an attempt to bolster the ceasefire—and praised the regime as a “real and effective partner.” A flurry of Egyptian diplomatic activity quickly followed, aimed at cementing the ceasefire and driving the reconciliation process between Palestinian factions, Fatah and Hamas. This included a visit by the head of the Egyptian General Intelligence Services, Abbas Kamel, to Gaza on May 31, the first by an Egyptian intelligence chief since the early 2000s, which was bookended by a visit by the Israeli foreign minister, Gabi Ashkenazi, to Cairo on the May 30, and a later visit by Hamas officials to Cairo on June 8.
Egyptian policy towards Hamas is driven by multiple and sometimes conflicting goals, and can only be understood through the intersection of domestic and foreign policy lenses. Increasingly Hamas and the Sisi regime appear interdependent, as both parties have a mutual interest in maintaining a semblance of a good relationship. Not only does the regime need Hamas’ support in Sinai, but it needs to maintain a close relationship to preserve its regional influence as a mediator, to minimize the influence of its regional competitors (Turkey and Qatar) in Gaza. Meanwhile, Hamas needs a minimum level of Egyptian goodwill to allow for the inflow of much needed supplies across the border, either legally through the crossing or illegally through the tunnels, and for the regime to act as a mediator on behalf of the group. Hence, the two parties remain locked in an embrace, dictated by forces beyond their control.
Maged Mandour is a political analyst and writes the “Chronicles of the Arab Revolt” column for Open Democracy. Follow him on Twitter @MagedMandour.