Middle East

Hamas in Gaza pin hopes on Mursi's election in Egypt

Palestinians in Gaza celebrate the victory of Mohammed Mursi (File)
Image caption Hamas supporters believe Egypt will be more supportive of the Palestinian cause after Mohammed Mursi's victory

On a sweltering July afternoon in Gaza City, Ghazi Hamed leans back in his chair and kicks off his shoes.

He stretches out his legs towards a large fan whirring in the corner of his office. He seems keen to cool his toes.

Hamas' deputy foreign minister is hot but he is not bothered. A smile creeps across his neatly trimmed salt and pepper beard. He's very much in the pink.

"Everyone is celebrating. We are very happy. It was wonderful," he smiles.

And the reason for his good humour: The election of a new president. Not in Gaza but in neighbouring Egypt.

When it was announced last month that the Muslim Brotherhood's Mohammed Mursi was to be Egypt's first democratically elected president, thousands of Hamas supporters in Gaza took to the streets to celebrate.

Gaza City's main boulevard - the Champs Elysee du Gaza, as some locals choose to call it - was filled with a cacophony of car horns and firecrackers.

Nearby, a succession of Hamas leaders took to a stage to cheer the Brotherhood's victory.

They see Mr Mursi very much as one of their own.

"The new voice, the new regime in Egypt will be more supportive for the Palestinians. Not only for Hamas but for the whole Palestinian question," says Mr Hamed.

Another reason for his upbeat mood, Mr Hamed says is what is good for Hamas, is bad for Israel.

"Israel is more isolated now. It has lost its most important friend in the Middle East. Things will not be like under Hosni Mubarak."

'Same principles'

Hamas, which has been in power in Gaza since 2007, was originally founded, in the 1980s, as a Palestinian offshoot of the long-established Muslim Brotherhood.

"At the end of the day Hamas is part of the international Muslim Brotherhood organisation," says Mokhaimer Abu Sada, Professor of Politics at Gaza's al-Azhar University.

"Because Palestinians are under Israel's occupation maybe Hamas became a militant organisation dedicated to fighting that occupation. But at the end of the day both Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt subscribe to the same principles."

Some analysts believe that having a powerful and now friendly neighbour will make Hamas more confident in its ongoing conflict with Israel.

In the days after Mr Mursi was elected, Hamas militants fired scores of rockets and mortars into Israel as the Israeli military carried out air strikes on Gaza.

It was the first time Hamas had directly engaged militarily for more than a year, although Israel accuses the Islamist movement of allowing smaller militants groups to launch attacks.

It is possible Hamas' military wing, the al-Qassam Brigades, was trying to assert itself, testing the waters as to how Israel might react given the change in power in Egypt just days earlier.

Both Mr Hamed and Prof Abu Sada reject that suggestion.

They say the Hamas firing had more to do with internal politics among Gaza's militant factions rather than being connected to Mr Mursi's election.

Either way many will be watching to see how the Muslim Brotherhood reacts if Hamas chooses to fire rockets again.

Internal problems

The Muslim Brotherhood has said it wants to uphold Egypt's long-standing peace treaty with Israel.

Prof Abu Sada believes the movement will put pressure on Hamas to also maintain some sort of cold peace.

Image caption Hamas wants Egypt to lift restrictions on its border with the Gaza Strip

"Egypt is definitely not interested in provoking Israel. Egypt is much more concerned with solving its internal problems - poverty and unemployment," says Prof Abu Sada.

"Hamas has the same issues in Gaza. Hamas is much more interested in rebuilding the Gaza Strip instead of engaging in another war with Israel. Since the last war [with Israel from December 2008 to January 2009] Hamas has largely tried to restrain other resistance groups within Gaza."

Prof Abu Sada highlights the internal dilemma, which has faced Hamas ever since it came to power: Can it successfully run a government taking care of Gaza's 1.6 million people while at the same time continuing to act as a resistance movement fighting Israel militarily?

He believes the Muslim Brotherhood will try to steer Hamas towards the former.

"The Muslim Brotherhood will try to influence Hamas in a much more moderate and pragmatic way."

And Mr Hamed, who is widely considered to be one of the more moderate voices within the Hamas leadership in Gaza, says his government does not want the Muslim Brotherhood to be forced to choose between keeping its relationship with Hamas and keeping the peace with Israel.

"We are not interested in squeezing the Muslim Brotherhood into a corner or dragging Egypt into a confrontation with Israel."

Mr Hamed cautions that much will also depend on how much power the Muslim Brotherhood eventually wrestles from Egypt's military generals.

He believes it could take several years before the shifting dynamics of power in Egypt begin to settle.

But in the long term, he sees Egypt and Turkey, with its Islamist government, as the two big players in the region with the potential to influence the Middle East's most intractable conflict, that is between Israel and the Palestinians.

In the shorter term he believes the Muslim Brotherhood will work towards easing the humanitarian situation in Gaza.

He hopes it will move to further lift Egypt's blockade of Gaza which former President Hosni Mubarak imposed at the request of Israel and the United States, when Hamas came to power.

Mr Hamed points to the fact that immediately after Mr Mursi's election, Egypt greatly increased the number of Palestinians allowed to leave Gaza through Egypt each day.

Around a thousand people are now permitted to travel each day, up from around 500 just a few months ago.

'Illegal trade'

Mr Hamed says the next target would be to see the border opened up to legal commercial traffic.

Currently hundreds of thousands of tonnes of goods, mostly construction materials, pass into Gaza through smuggling tunnels from Egypt every month.

The illegal trade, which has greatly increased since the fall of Mr Mubarak, has helped fuel something of a construction boom in Gaza with new buildings being put up on just about every street corner.

"We have had a building revolution in Gaza over the past year," says Rafik Hassuna, in front of a new classroom block that his company is building at Gaza's Islamic University.

Mr Hassuna runs one of the largest construction companies in Gaza. One of biggest projects is helping build a new wide tree-lined corniche road along the strip's Mediterranean seafront.

It is a huge undertaking, given that all the thousands of tonnes of building materials have to be carted in underground.

Image caption Rafik Hassuna's company has benefited from a "building revolution" in Gaza since the fall of Hosni Mubarak

"It's crazy!" says Mr Hassuna shaking his head.

"We suffered from Mubarak who supported Israel and its siege of Gaza."

He now wants Mr Mursi to open up the border for trade.

"We hope the Arab Spring will bring fresh rains for Gaza. There is a commercial relation between Egypt and Libya, Egypt and Sudan. We hope to establish the same relation between Gaza and Egypt. We pray for this."

But there is one reason why such an opening up might not happen.

Some in Israel have suggested that the Egypt-Gaza border should be opened up, pushing responsibility for the Palestinian territory towards Cairo.

And that is why Mr Hamed says Hamas wants Egypt to be close but not too close.

"Gaza is part of Palestine. Gaza, the West Bank, Jerusalem and the whole of Palestine are part of one political and geographical unity. Gaza is part of the Palestinian homeland - it is not part of Egypt."