Hamas’ fortunes dwindle as conflicts roil Middle East

If there is one group that has suffered whiplash at every turn of Egyptian politics — and from the many conflicts roiling the Middle East — it is Hamas, the Palestinian Islamist group that rules the Gaza Strip bordering Egypt. The fortunes of Hamas, an outgrowth of the Muslim Brotherhood, provide a compact microcosm to observe the impact of the regions’ convulsions.

It’s complicated, but it is simple: For Hamas, this is a disaster.

It’s not just events in Egypt, where the toppling of two presidents since 2011 has toyed with Gazans’ emotions. The troubles go further and deeper; the strategic and financial losses for Hamas extend to Syria, Iran and elsewhere. The sources of support, weapons and cash are drying up, and the prominence given to its cause by other Arabs is fading amid the multiple crises.

Two and a half years ago, when Hosni Mubarak fell, Gaza marked the occasion with fireworks and celebratory gunfire. After all, Mubarak had enforced a policy of suppressing the Muslim Brotherhood at home and sustaining a blockade of Gaza, which he saw as a dangerous partner of the Egyptian Brotherhood.

When people think of the Gaza blockade, they think of Israel. But Gaza also borders Egypt, and Cairo has tightly controlled what crosses the border. Those controls have just grown much stricter.

Joyous celebrations

When the uprisings started succeeding in Tunisia and Egypt, it looked as though they, and the Muslim Brotherhood, would sweep the entire region in short order. Hamas’ prospects looked bright. Celebrations were even more joyous when the Muslim Brotherhood’s candidate, Mohammed Morsi, won Egypt’s elections. But the good news ended there.

Under Morsi, Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula, which abuts Gaza, became the scene of violent attacks against Egyptian soldiers. Instead of relaxing restrictions on movement of people and goods, the Egyptian army cracked down hard, shutting down smuggling tunnels more harshly than they had under Mubarak, adding insult to injury by flooding them with sewage.

Then Hamas was presented with a crucial decision in Syria. President Bashar al-Assad had provided a place of honor in Damascus to Hamas’ leadership in exile. Hamas belonged to the vaunted “axis of resistance,” an anti-Israel alliance of Iran, Syria, Hezbollah and Hamas. They wholeheartedly supported Hamas’ commitment to the destruction of the Jewish state, providing it with diplomatic, military, logistical and financial support.

But suddenly, the Syrian dictator, Hamas’ friend, faced a popular uprising of his own. His brutal tactics, killing tens of thousands of civilians, earned him the hatred of much of the Arab world. Hamas tried to avoid taking sides, but ultimately abandoned Assad and Syria.

Right choice

The move infuriated Iran, Hezbollah and Syria. It cost Hamas a great deal in strategic and material support, but it seemed like the right choice. After all, Hamas’ friends were winning in Egypt. The wealthy Emir of Qatar and the charismatic prime minister of Turkey, strong supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood across the Middle East, both offered enthusiastic backing for Hamas. Any losses in support would surely be made up by the new friends. Hamas leaders decamped from Damascus, relocating in Cairo and Doha.

Now the landscape has changed once again.

Morsi, who proved of little use to Hamas, has been overthrown. The Egyptian people have turned against the Muslim Brotherhood and against Hamas, which they see as an ally of the Islamists. (A Zogby poll conducted April 4-May 12 of 5,029 Egyptian adults nationwide found only 26 percent confidence in the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party.) Many Egyptians also blame Hamas for the escalating violence against their forces in the Sinai.

Abu Marzouk, Hamas’ deputy political leader, who was only recently giving interviews from his offices in Cairo, has fled Egypt. A few days ago, an Arab newspaper reported the Egyptian army had killed 32 Hamas members and arrested 45 more.

Hamas is still closely allied with the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, but that group has other urgent problems on its plate. The same is true of other branches of the Brotherhood, all occupied with their own situation. And yet, anti-Brotherhood forces, the military, see it as more of a threat than ever before.

Busy friends

Other friends are also busy. The generous pro-Brotherhood, pro-Hamas Emir of Qatar has handed power to his young son, who inherits a foreign policy in turmoil and may decide to shift gears. Even Turkey, where Prime Minister Erdogan has been a vociferous Hamas supporter, has other pressing matters at home and on its Syrian border.

Hezbollah, Iran and Assad feel betrayed by Gaza. Everyone else has turned against it or is otherwise occupied.

The most optimistic observation Hamas can make today is that in the Middle East, everything can change very quickly.

Frida Ghitis writes about global affairs for The Miami Herald. Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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