Over the past 15 months, Khaled Meshaal twice announced that he would step down from his position at the head of Hamas. So how come, after the votes of the 60 Hamas officials gathered in Cairo for a Shura Council on Monday were counted, he was re-elected as overall leader? According to Hamas sources quoted in Haaretz, the result demonstrates that Egypt’s influence is growing and that “the Egyptians and senior Hamas officials had pressured Meshaal to stay on.”
The Arab Spring, and more particularly the civil war in Syria, has pushed Hamas out of the Shiite resistance axis of Damascus and Tehran and into the Sunni orbit of Qatar, where Meshaal is based, and Cairo, now ruled by Hamas’s sister party the Muslim Brotherhood. Hamas is a Sunni organisation and it has now come home. However, as analysts Hussein Ibish and Benedetta Berti have argued, the love showered on Hamas by Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi has been tough indeed. In fact, Hamas has experienced what Ibish nicely calls desengaño—a combination of disappointment, disenchantment, disillusionment and despair.
Why has this happened? In short, Egypt fears being dragged it into a war with Israel and has been acting to wall off that possibility. Since 5th August last year, when a group of militants, some from Gaza, killed 16 Egyptian soldiers and then tried to use stolen Egyptian military vehicles to force their way into Israel, Cairo has been getting tougher. It supervised a Hamas climb-down during Operation Pillar of Defence in November, mediating the cease-fire and the subsequent talks between Israel and Hamas, and even flooding Hamas’s smuggling tunnels with raw sewage to press home its seriousness. And now, pressure from Cairo on Meshaal to stand again, and on the Hamas leadership to re-elect him, seems to have been critical in the result.
Meshaal is no moderate. His rejectionist views, complete with his refusal to “relinquish an inch” of Palestine, were set out again in an important policy speech made at an Al-Zaytouna conference in Beirut on 28th-29th November. Nonetheless, he has been willing to at least make a show of playing with the rhetoric of non-violent resistance, and this goes down well with Egypt’s western allies and makes him preferable to the military leadership in the Gaza…