Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Reacting To Hamas Instability

Three senior leaders of Hamas, Moussa Abu Marzouk, Mohammed Naser, and Izzat Risheq, have moved their families from Damascus in the wake of increasing instability in Syria.  Abu Marzouk's family is in Egypt.  According to Palestinian sources speaking to al-Hayat, Abu Marzouk, deputy politboro chief of Hamas, may have himself been received by Egypt on the condition that he refrain from political activity.  The moves come after the family of Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal was moved to Amman, Jordan.

Hamas has not been immune to the effects of the Arab Spring, and like many actors in the Middle East, its current position is unstable.  This instability opens opportunities to make progress towards a more secure order in the region.

As Syria becomes increasingly violent and the Muslim Brotherhood gains influence in Egypt, Hamas leaders naturally are looking to more stable countries from which to base their operations.  While the three senior leaders mentioned above are staying in Damascus for the moment, they likely have contingency plans for if - or when - the Assad regime collapses.  However, whether or not Egypt will be a safe haven for Abu Marzouk largely depends on the final breakdown of the new Egyptian parliament, as well as the extent to which the SCAF views him as a threat to stability.  

Hamas' scramble to adapt to the new realities of the Middle East has also brought cleavages in the movement to the surface.  An essay posted on Facebook today by the Lebanese senior official of Hamas recognized Khaled Meshaal as a "brave leader" for planning to step down at the end of his term as the head of Hamas.  However, Meshaal had made no such statement, and Fawzi Barhoum, a Hamas spokesman in Gaza, roundly denied that Meshaal would step down.  Such incidents may indicate internal disagreement within Hamas about how to pursue its political agenda, including the contentious reconciliation process with Fatah.  

For those in the Middle East to whom Hamas poses a security threat, now is the time to engage with key players who can reduce Hamas' ability to threaten or inflict harm.  Concerned actors should quickly to signal support for a SCAF decision to limit Hamas' ability to project power from inside Egypt.  They should also maintain contact with the Muslim Brotherhood who will have substantial influence in Hamas' decisions should the group gain a foothold in Egypt.  

On the Hamas-Fatah reconciliation process, concerned actors should reiterate their support for free and fair Palestinian elections.  This move would condition Hamas' legitimacy on following through with elections, and incentivize political rather than violent action.

Finally, concerned actors should recognize the blow to Iran posed by a Hamas evacuation from Syria.  While Iran and Hamas will likely try to maintain alignment, it will be much harder to do so from Arab countries with Sunni governments.  This harms Iran's regional influence, and alters the strategic calculus of all players on the Iranian nuclear issue.

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