Egypt sets sights on Hamas in widening anti-Islamist campaign

Hamas is an offshoot of Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood, which has been declared a terrorist organization and pushed almost completely underground.

Ibraheem Abu Mustafa/Reuters/File
Tunnel workers sit outside a smuggling tunnel on the border between Egypt and the southern Gaza Strip February 17, 2014. The tunnels running underneath the Gaza border are a lifeline for Gazans, who use them to smuggle food, building supplies, and books, but also weapons.

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An Egyptian court banned all Hamas activity in the country today, the latest step in Cairo’s drive to expel organizations it considers threatening to national security, which has been undermined by a building Islamic insurgency. 

Relations with Hamas have nosedived since the military overthrow of democratically elected president and Muslim Brotherhood member Mohamed Morsi last July. Hamas is an offshoot of Egypt's Brotherhood, which the new government declared a terrorist organization in December.

According to the Associated Press, Cairo believes “Hamas is playing a key role in the insurgency by militants in the northern region of the Sinai Peninsula, which borders Hamas-ruled Gaza and Israel.” Hamas has been accused of interfering in Egyptian affairs (many of its leaders are based in Cairo, a relic of the Brotherhood’s time in power) and colluding with militants that have orchestrated attacks on Egyptian security forces, according to BBC.

Hamas, considered a terrorist organization by the United States, took power in Gaza in 2007 after a brief civil war with the more moderate Palestinian party Fatah, led by President Mahmoud Abbas, and Egyptian officials have since turned to Fatah for help weakening Hamas, Reuters reports. Furthermore, since July, Egypt's military has destroyed more than a thousand tunnels running underneath the Gaza border. The tunnels are a lifeline for Gazans, who use them to smuggle food, building supplies, and books, but also weapons. Egypt controls Gaza’s only border crossing not controlled by Israel.

According to The Christian Science Monitor, Hamas viewed Mr. Morsi’s rise to power in Egypt as a triumph that could help end Gaza’s economic and political isolation.

They were half-right. Hamas never had a better year in Gaza than Morsi's year in power, although his government kept Gaza cut off from Egypt much as [former President Hosni] Mubarak had in an attempt to keep up ties with Israel and the United States. But Morsi also promised a broader economic opening to the enclave, and there was a new spirit of optimism among Hamas stalwarts on the ground.

The honeymoon period came to an abrupt end, however, when the Egyptian military removed Morsi on July 3, leaving Hamas to deal with a new-old enemy after 12 euphoric months under the Muslim Brotherhood. The military's animosity toward Hamas is such that when it detained Morsi, one of the accusations made against the former president was that he had contact with the group during his escape from prison in 2011. 

Since the Hamas takeover in 2007, the Egyptian Army has consistently accused it of meddling in Egyptian internal affairs and of being behind militant operations in the Sinai Peninsula that have destabilized the region and killed scores of Egyptian soldiers. It did not take long for the military to begin anew its battle with Hamas.

Senior Hamas official Izzat Rishq condemned today’s ruling, calling it a “political decision” by Egypt against the resistance of the Palestinian people, according to the AP. Hamas offials say they are suffering "unprecedented media and political campaign of incitement and defamation" in Egypt, according to Ahram Online.

In addition to banning all Hamas activity in Egypt, today’s case, which was brought by a group of Egyptian lawyers soon after the Muslim Brotherhood was ruled a terrorist organization in December 2013, calls for the shuttering of Hamas office space in the country. However, the judge did not declare Hamas a terrorist group because the court does not have the jurisdiction for that, according to Reuters. 

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