Hamas learns lessons from the Arab Spring

Are the rulers of Gaza taking careful note of the political success of Islamists elsewhere? Yes, they are, a leading Hamas figure tells Hugh Naylor, Foreign Correspondent

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The rising political power of Islamists in Egypt and elsewhere in the Arab world is spurring Hamas to moderate its policies and embrace peaceful avenues for change, its deputy foreign minister says.

The group is heeding the calls of these sibling movements and parties to be "more pragmatic, more open-minded", Ghazi Hamad told The National.

He was speaking a day after the members of Egypt's first freely elected parliament in six decades were sworn in, led by the Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party and Al Nour, a Salafist party.

The two Islamist parties together won 71.47 per cent of the vote.

Mr Hamad says that despite the emergence of a powerful Islamist bloc - and potential close ally and guardian - next door in Egypt, each faces different challenges.

Hamas must reckon with Israel's continued economic and trade blockade on the Gaza Strip, while Egypt's Islamists must learn how to govern. Nevertheless, he said, there was plenty of scope for Cairo to assist.

"I think now what Hamas needs is someone who helps, who will be our real friend and ally and who can tell Israel: 'No, you have to stop aggression against the Palestinians'," he said. "This is what we need, but it won't happen immediately."

A sticking point to deeper ties between Egypt's Islamists and those in Gaza will continue to be the refusal by Hamas to renounce entirely the use of arms and the "right to resist" in its struggle against Israel.

The Islamists in Egypt are keen to ensure continuity in Egypt's ties with Washington and other western governments, and will not accept that position, Mr Hamad said.

"The Brotherhood will move very carefully and will avoid the things that are not central to their goals at the moment, which are stability and the economy."


Audo: The Hamas leadership, at a crossroads due to the Arab Spring, have been travelling extensively in the Middle East in order to reassess its' strategic alliances. Hugh Naylor reports from Jerusalem.

Nevertheless, he acknowledged, the triumph of Islamists in Egypt could not but shift the political landscape in Gaza. "Egypt is a big, heavy country with a lot of influence in the world, and they will have a huge affect on our situation, the whole situation."

Mr Hamad's comments are the latest indication that the tilt by Hamas towards Cairo and the rest of North Africa and away from its longtime allies, Iran and Syria, may be gaining pace.

His remarks also came only three days after the head of Hamas, Khaled Meshaal, confirmed that he would not seek re-election as chairman of the Hamas Political Bureau. Based in Damascus, Mr Meshaal has been the movement's main link to Tehran and the government of the Syrian president, Bashar Al Assad.

Mr Meshaal's decision suggests that Hamas is riven more than usual by internal disputes over its political direction as it tries to weather the tumult sweeping the region.

Founded a quarter-century ago as a social-welfare organisation, it became in the aftermath of the first intifada better known for its suicide and rocket attacks against Israel.

Now, as a militant organisation that is the status-quo power in the Gaza Strip, it appears to be struggling to adapt.

Whether Mr Meshaal's decision not to seek re-election stemmed from discord over his role in pressing for reconciliation with Hamas's main political rival, Fatah, or over his tentative support for a long-term truce with Israel, is not known.

He is due to travel to Jordan this weekend for talks with King Abdullah II. It would be the first official talks between Hamas and Jordan since the government there cracked down on the group more than a decade ago.

The extent to which Mr Hamad's views are widely shared among his colleagues in the group's highly secretive upper echelons is far from clear, too.

Widely viewed as a moderate, he has for some time signalled that Hamas was prepared to play a less maverick role in regional affairs.

"The world should realise that we have made many changes," he said last May. "The international community should not run away from these changes."

Now, Mr Hamad is confident that an Egypt steered by the Muslim Brotherhood will, by working through international organisations such as the United Nations, eventually help to end the economic blockade of Gaza.

Once the Hamas official in charge of managing Gaza's border crossings, he has had extensive dealings with Egyptian authorities.

"I've been meeting them and they understand the situation very well," he said.



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