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Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Egypt's concerns over Hamas win

CAIRO, Jan. 31 (UPI) -- The political earthquake resulting from Hamas' landslide victory over the longtime dominant Fatah movement reverberated throughout the Middle East, especially in Egypt.

Egypt, which plays a key role in internal Palestinian politics and is also a main mediator between the Palestinian Authority and Israel, found itself facing a new faction that commands a Palestinian majority, which is different from Fatah, the party Cairo helped create in the mid 1960s and with whom it dealt for decades.

Egypt, the first Arab country to sign a peace treaty with Israel in 1979, has several concerns and fears over the stunning victory of the "Palestinian branch" of the Muslim Brotherhood, the Sunni extremist organization that was originally founded in Egypt in the first half of the last century and then spread to most other Arab countries.

Cairo's concerns are related to inter-Palestinian conflicts. Some have regional and international dimensions, but the most important concern is over the impact of Hamas' victory on the mother organization in Egypt. THE Muslim Brotherhood scored very well at last year's general elections, grabbing an unprecedented 88 seats in the 454-member parliament.

Egyptian officials have so far not commented on the outcome of the Palestinian poll in which Hamas won 76 seats in the 132-member parliament, dealing a painful blow to Fatah which got 43 seats.

But Arab League Secretary General Amr Mousa, a former foreign minister of Egypt and a main architect of both Egypt's peace treaty and Palestinian peace accords with Israel, stressed in advance of the Palestinian election the need for commitment to the Arab peace initiative endorsed at the Beirut Arab summit in 2002. The Saudi-inspired initiative reflected the Arabs' definite choice for strategic dealing with Israel through peace negotiations.

Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Abul Ghait also underlined this point prior to the Palestinian poll. In a commentary on projections that Hamas will be part of the new parliament, he told Saudi daily al-Sharq al-Awsat last week he was convinced the "Hamas which will be working within the political framework through its representation in parliament will be totally different from the Hamas which adopts armed struggle.

"Politics is much more comprehensive and important ... and the involvement of a militant group in political work leads to fundamental changes within that group as proved by the history of similar movements," he said.

The Egyptian government is aware the balance of power in the region is strongly tilted in favor of Israel, a fact that prompted Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to stress last year that if the Palestinians failed to reach a peace deal with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, they will have a long wait.

Egyptian political observers argue that despite legitimate Egyptian concerns, there is a strong feeling by the Egyptian leadership that Hamas will not resort to a new escalation of violence against Israel in the next phase.

"There is a tangible change in Hamas, which was made clear through its commitment to the unofficial truce with Israel and its participation in the municipal and legislative elections," said Jamal Abdel Jawad, an expert at al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies.

"During its whole electoral campaign, Hamas has refrained from reviving its traditional speech of liberating Palestine from the sea to the river," Abdel Jawad told United Press International in reference to Hamas' declared objective of destroying Israel.

"The process of change in Hamas might be slow but it is steady and continuous in view of prevailing international conditions and U.S. and European pressures and threats to cease assistance to the Palestinian Authority.

"The threats to withhold assistance to the PA might stir conflicts within Hamas itself, leading towards its metamorphosis," Abdel Jawad said.

Hamas leaders have reaffirmed after victory in the elections their attachment to armed resistance against Israel, but at the same time, Hamas largely observed the truce with Israel, reached during meetings of Palestinian groups in Cairo in March last year.

Egypt also has security concerns, notably the possibility of disorder in the Gaza Strip, which is located on its northeastern border.

Earlier this month, two Egyptian border guards were killed by gunmen from Fatah's al-Aqsa Brigades who were trying to make an opening in the wall along the border between Rafah and the Egyptian territory.

Egyptian security reports hinted at to the possible involvement of Palestinians in suicide attacks that hit tourist centers in Taba in October 2004, killing 34 people, including 11 Israeli tourists. But Amro Abdel Rahman, political writer in al-Boussola, played down Egyptian fears of Hamas' rise to power.

"Hamas is a strong and well-organized movement which can control its members, unlike Fatah which is torn by divisions, reflected in the behavior of its armed groups," Abdel Rahman told UPI.

He indicated the Egyptian border guards were killed by Fatah, not Hamas gunmen, but hinted to the dangers of possible armed conflicts between Fatah and Hamas in the Gaza Strip.

In fact, three Palestinians were injured in a clash between Hamas and Fatah gunmen in south Gaza a day after the official announcement of the Islamic movement's victory, dealing a humiliating defeat to Fatah.

Hamas' victory, in the meantime, had strong resonance in the Egyptian public, especially among Islamic groups.

A leading member of the banned but tolerated Muslim Brotherhood Organization, Issam Aryan, commented "Hamas' victory is a historic achievement in all the sense of the word.

"Hamas will be facing a great challenge, namely that of continuing as a resistance and national liberation movement against Israeli occupation, and at the same time securing Arab support and winning international recognition and backing," Aryan said.

Abdel Rahman noted Hamas' win will constitute a driving force and incentive for Islamic movements in Egypt, especially the Muslim Brotherhood.

"Political life in Egypt at present is controlled by two poles: the regime and its security and military agencies on one side and the Muslim Brotherhood on the other. Maybe Hamas' win will help Muslim brothers to have a bigger influence on Egypt's foreign policy," Abdel Rahman contended.

In the past, security reports have hinted that mediation efforts were deployed by the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt to convince Hamas to accept the truce with Israel.

Abdel Jawad underlined the possibility that the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt might mediate between Hamas and the Egyptian government in the future if the need arises.
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