Egypt is reportedly furious at Hamas’ leader Ismail Haniyeh after he and a delegation from Gaza attended the funeral of slain Iranian Quds Force commander, Qassem Soleimani. Haniyeh headed a Hamas delegation out of the besieged Gaza Strip on 2 December 2019, the first time that Egypt allowed him to leave the enclave since his election as leader of Hamas in 2017. He was meant to visit a number of countries as part of an international relations tour. Egypt approved the countries he would visit; Iran was not on the list. Haniyeh, however, attended Soleimani’s funeral and was the only non-Iranian to speak at the event, where he referred to the Iranian general as ‘the martyr of Jerusalem’. The Egyptians have allowed other members of the delegation to return to Gaza, but it is unclear whether Egypt will allow Haniyeh to leave again, when he returns. Hamas is also cagey about when its leader will make his way back or whether he will visit other countries not approved of by the Egyptians.
Egypt and Hamas relations become stronger after the fall of Hosni Mubarak’s regime during the 2011 uprisings. The one-year presidency of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohammed Morsi, from June 2012 to July 2013, saw flourishing relations between the Egyptian government and the authority in Gaza. Morsi had ordered the permanent opening of the Rafah crossing between Egypt and Gaza. Palestinians from Gaza were thus able to travel in and out of the territory without hindrance, and there was also an increase in trade, after years of prohibition. In a July 2013 coup, General Abdel Fattah El Sisi overthrew Morsi and accused Hamas of being a co-conspirator against the security and the stability of the Egyptian people. Reversing Morsi’s decision, he tightened the blockade on Gaza.
Relations improved in 2017 when Hamas elected a new leadership mostly based in Gaza, unlike the previous leadership that was based mostly in Qatar and headed by Khaled Mesha'al. Haniyeh quickly started talks with Egypt after he election. Hamas delegations frequently visited Cairo for reconciliation talks with other Palestinian factions, notably Fatah, facilitated by Egypt. Egyptian officials have also frequented Gaza for negotiations with Hamas over ceasefires with Israel and to discuss blockade restrictions imposed by Israel and Egypt. Relations further strengthened when Egypt agreed to a buffer zone between Gaza and the Sinai to prevent Islamic State (IS) group militants retreating into Gaza.
A critical aspect of Egypt’s relations with Hamas is the former’s strong ties to Israel and to the USA. In 2018, US President Donald Trump’s son-in-law and adviser, Jared Kushner, discussed with Egypt the creation of a trade zone and industrial projects in the northern Sinai and in Gaza as part of Trump’s touted ‘deal of the century’. To realise this plan, Egypt agreed that it would coordinate economic projects with Hamas. In 2019, Qatar announced that it would begin distributing funds to families in Gaza and pay for fuel for electricity generation as part of its National Committee for the Reconstruction of Gaza project. This followed indirect negotiations between Hamas and Israel, mediated by Egypt, which brought relief to 2 million besieged Gazans. This agreement had been concluded during a twenty-four day trip to Cairo by a Hamas delegation headed by Haniyeh in February 2019. It became clear that Egypt was willing to allow Haniyeh to travel out of Gaza but only for meetings in Cairo; he swiftly returned to the strip after every trip.
For his current trip, Haniyeh left Gaza on 2 December 2019 for Cairo, where he attended a number of meetings with Egyptian officials to negotiate a longterm ceasefire with Israel. This followed an exchange of fire between groups in Gaza and Israel, after Israel assassinated one Islamic Jihad (Bahaa Abu Al-Ata) leader in Gaza. After these meetings, Haniyeh’s delegation departed for his first international trip as Hamas leader. The trip’s schedule was agreed upon with Egypt, and included Qatar, where many former and current Hamas leaders are based, as well as Turkey and Malaysia.
The Egyptians told Haniyeh not to attend the Kuala Lumpur Summit in Malaysia on 18 December, following Saudi Arabia’s insistence. The Saudis viewed the Summit as Malaysia’s attempt to set up an alternative to the Organisation for Islamic Cooperation (OIC), which Saudi Arabia currently heads. Haniyeh obliged and sent a high-level delegation instead. Unimpressed, Egypt nonetheless conceded that Haniyeh had not violated the agreement. Egypt’s conditions included Haniyeh’s not visiting Iran.
When the head of the Quds Force unit of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, Qassem Soleimani, was killed by an American airstrike on 3 January, Egypt further warned Haniyeh not to attend his funeral. Haniyeh, however, defied the order. He also met with the newly-appointed Quds Force commander Esmail Ghaani, and, together with Islamic Jihad leader for an international relations trip, visited Soleimani’s home to express condolences.
Haniyeh’s trip to Iran angered the Egyptians to such an extent that they may not let him back into Gaza after he completes his trip, or prevent him leaving the territory again. Egypt also, in retaliation for Haniyeh’s insubordination, temporarily blocked the transfer of gas into Gaza. This resumed only after talks on 9 February. After these talks, little was mentioned about what the Egyptians had said about Haniyeh, who is still in Doha.
Although Hamas has denied that Egypt had been furious over the Iran visit, it is clear that relations between the two parties have been shaken. Egypt believes that since 2013 it has largely managed to exercise control over Hamas, in line with the wishes of Israel and Egyptian allies Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Haniyeh’s Iran visit was, thus, an embarrassment for Egypt. Although Haniyeh’s trip to Iran might have been strategic from a Hamas point of view, it, however, throws the existing relationship with Egypt into murky waters. Egypt might further restrict the movement of goods and people through the Rafah crossing, in a form of collective punishments against Gaza’s residents.
The Egyptian government’s need to artificially increase voter turnout in the presidential election at the end of March through a combination of enticements and threats indicates a growing disillusionment among ordinary Egyptians with the political situation in the country. With the victory of the incumbent, Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi, which was never in doubt, it is likely that Egypt will see an increase in already-high levels of repression.
Long before official electoral results gave Sisi ninety-seven per cent of the vote, his victory had been expected by everyone, especially after former military chief of staff, General Sami Anan, had been arrested in January, and human rights lawyer Khaled Ali had been forced to withdraw from the race. These events occurred in an atmosphere in which dissent was being violently repressed. That repression intensified in the past few months as the regime sought to shut down the already minuscule space available for opposition.
Sisi’s rein has seen thousands killed and tens of thousands arrested; a 2013 law severely curtailed the right to protest; and a 2017 law ensures that only NGOs supportive of the regime are able to operate. Some constituencies that had initially given some level of support to SIsi, such as leftist parties and youth organisations, have seen their members arrested more recently, and the state has been formenting leadership contestation within some such groups. In a 29 January statement, Anan, Ali, and others labelled the electoral process a sham and advocated a boycott. To prevent Sisi being the sole candidate, the regime allegedly influenced Al Gad party’s Moussa Mostafa Moussa, who had already expressed his love for Sisi, to register as a candidate hours before the close of nominations. Until a week before his registration, he had been actively campaigning for Sisi.
With all these shenanigans, the only question that the election would answer was how large the voter turnout would be. The regime resorted to threatening voters to ensure a high turnout, which it believed would indicate support for Sisi. Teachers were forced to sign voter cards with their inked fingers in an attempt to ensure that they had voted, and in the governorates of Beheira and New Valley, officials had promised increased social services for districts with high voter turnouts.
In Minya and Sohag, police sought to pressure citizens to participate, and street vendors were threatened with the confiscation of their property if they failed to vote. Despite these attempts, voting numbers were still low, and the preliminary turnout had to be adjusted upward from forty to forty-two percent; Sisi’s vote of ninety-two per cent was also upped to ninety-seven per cent in order to equal the 2014 poll.
Astonishingly, the National Election Agency (NEA) claimed a high turnout in northern Sinai despite the Egyptian military’s scorched earth operations in the peninsula, and despite many in the region not being regarded as integral to Egypt, and many not even possessing full citizenship rights.
Although Sisi’s victory was guaranteed, the severity of the measures instituted to crack down on dissent and ensure that citizens voted point to his many failings. His handling of the economy has alienated many Egyptians; a twelve billion dollar IMF loan was conditioned on the regime drastically reducing subsidies and allowing the currency to float. This aggravated the conditions of Egyptians, and criticism of the regime has increased, even from previously supportive lawmakers and television personalities. The president’s decision to hand over the Tiran and Sanafir islands to Saudi Arabia angered many Egyptians who had supported his nationalist rhetoric; and the insurgency in northern Sinai (and its spillover into the mainland) saw Sisi’s security credentials being questioned. The opposition from Anan and former air force General Ahmed Shafiq are significant in this regard, and suggest the possibility that there is not unanimity within the military regarding Sisi’s rule. In October 2017, he dismissed his confidante and military chief of staff Mahmoud Hegazy, and in January 2018 he fired the head of intelligence, Khaled Fawzy, leading some former insiders to argue that military discontent is at a high.
With Sisi’s electoral victory, it is likely that harsher measures will be implemented in Egypt, especially as regards economic policy, which could see further subsidy cuts to unlock the second tranche of the IMF loan. This will likely lead to more discontent and further repression, especially if citizens’ socioeconomic conditions worsen dramatically. The international community, especially since the accession of Donald Trump to the US presidency in 2017, and later Emmanuel Macron’s election to the French presidency, has been willing to tolerate Sisi’s repression since Cairo is regarded as being in the frontline of the battle against the Islamic State group, whose strongest branch (Sinai ‘Province’), operates in Egypt, and because Cairo is largely supportive of the dominant powers on regional issues. Sisi’s victory is also being seen by many as a sign that he might attempt to amend the constitution to remove the two-term presidential limit. Already, pro-Sisi parliamentarians are agitating for this, thus laying the ground for a new confrontation.
Egypt's cabinet has approved a countrywide state of emergency for three months, a day after two church bombings left at least 44 people dead. It needs to be approved by parliament within seven days in order to remain in place.
By Afro-Middle East Centre
By Afro-Middle East Centre
Protests by Egypt’s main journalist syndicate and Egyptians previously loyal to the military regime point to increasing opposition to President Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi and his regime, and to their inability or unwillingness to scale down their repression of citizens.
The most recent protests were sparked by the police’s storming of the journalist syndicate’s Cairo headquarters and the arrest of journalists Amr Badr and Mahmoud el-Sakka. They were accused of inciting protests against Sisi’s April 2016 decision to hand over the islands of Sanafir and Tiran to Saudi Arabia. The decision was widely criticised by Egypt’s elite and media. Ironically, one of the ‘reasons’ cited for the military coup against former president Mohamed Morsi was the (false) claim that he intended transferring control of North Sinai to the Palestinian resistance group Hamas. Badr and el-Sakka had opposed the unpopular island transfer, which saw thousands protesting and 1 200 arrested. Over 150 protesters were subsequently sentenced to between two- and five-year prison terms for the protests, which violated the November 2013 protest law adopted to quell dissent after Morsi’s ouster. Even former Sisi supporters, including Popular Current Party’s Hamdeen Sabahi, challenged the island decision in court, and it is likely that opposition will increase further if parliament ratifies the handover.
The May protests follow a pattern of increasing dissatisfaction with Sisi’s policies, which have failed to stimulate an economy that contracted in 2015. Inflation currently stands at eleven per cent, and the much- touted eight billion dollar Suez Canal expansion project only marginally increased government revenue, owing to the global economic slowdown and drop in oil prices. Shortages of cooking gas and electricity continue, and the drop in foreign reserves has caused the government to tighten exchange controls, especially since Gulf aid has diminished following the accession to power of King Salman in Saudi Arabia. Further, the military has aggressively increased its already numerous activities in Egypt’s economy, thus competing with private business. Egypt’s elite has been impacted, and Sisi has come under increasing criticism from private media outlets and commentators. His popularity has decreased drastically.
The protests have been endorsed by over 3 000 members of Egypt’s 8 000-member journalist syndicate, including editors of most major private and even state-owned media outlets. Supported by the previously apolitical doctors’ syndicate, which opposes the interior ministry’s treatment of doctors, protesters have demanded the removal of the country’s interior minister, Magdy Abdel Ghaffar. The syndicate has refused to publish the minister’s name until an apology from Sisi is received, and has vowed to escalate actions into a full-blown strike in the coming weeks.
Traditional opposition parties such as the Muslim Brotherhood and activist youth groups such as the April 6 Youth Movement have added their voices, and for the first time since seizing power, Sisi faces a backlash from most major Egyptian constituencies. Prior to the large 15 and 25 April protests, the frequency of and attendance at anti-regime protests had been waning when compared to late 2013; however, the island transfer has galvanised many Egyptians. It seems even some officials in the interior ministry are sympathetic, and memos alluding to methods of regime discourse manipulation and instructions on constraining protests have been leaked. Much of the media had previously supported the regime, and endorsed Sisi’s crackdown on the Brotherhood, enabling him to control public discourse and silence opposition figures.
The regime responded by increasing its crackdown on opposition figures, including journalists, insisting in one leaked memo, that it ‘cannot retreat from this position now; a retreat would mean a mistake was made, and if there was a mistake who is responsible and who is to be held to account?’ Sisi has, in recent months. sought to silence opposition even from the supportive elite, insisting that it threatened the country’s stability. He even implored Egyptians in one speech to listen only to him.
In January 2016, the Al-Nadeem Centre for Rehabilitation of Victims of Violence in Cairo reported ‘195 deaths, 42 cases of torture, including eight people who were tortured to death, 60 cases of medical neglect, 20 cases of group violence by the police, and 66 forced disappearances, while 32 people were reported to have reappeared in various places of detention, in some cases months after they had vanished.’ Authorities subsequently shut down Al-Nadeem in February. It is noteworthy that the sentences issued to recent protesters are less punitive than those issued to people believed to be close to the banned Brotherhood. Six people, including three journalists (two from Al Jazeera) were sentenced to death on 7 May, accused of ‘leaking information to Qatar’.
Although opposition to the regime has increased, the regime remains unthreatened in the short term, especially since many Egyptians are content with the ‘stability’ Sisi’s rule brings. Moreover, the internal opposition is too fragmented, and the regime crackdown too heavy-handed to allow for the formation of a unified and coordinated stance. Moreover, many from within the Egyptian left and secularists are still prejudiced against the role of Islamists, specifically the Brotherhood, in a new dispensation, and are likely to advocate reform rather than revolution. The protests do, however, illustrate that Egyptians’ aspirations and expectations have grown since Mubarak’s overthrow, and that if Sisi’s policies to stimulate the economy continue to fail, Egyptians are unlikely to allow him the same amount of leeway as was afforded Mubarak, especially since the regime no longer operates from behind a liberal veneer.