CAIRO: After crushing the Muslim Brotherhood at home, Egypt’s military rulers plan to undermine the Palestinian militant group Hamas, which runs the neighboring Gaza Strip, senior Egyptian security officials told Reuters.
The aim, which the officials say could take years to pull off, includes working with Hamas’ political rivals Fatah and supporting popular anti-Hamas activities in Gaza, four security and diplomatic officials said.
Since it seized power in Egypt last summer, Egypt’s military has squeezed Gaza’s economy by destroying most of the 1,200 tunnels used to smuggle food, cars and weapons to the coastal enclave, which is under an Israeli blockade.
Now Cairo is becoming even more ambitious in its drive to eradicate what it says are militant groups that threaten its national security.
Intelligence operatives, with help from Hamas’ political rivals and activists, plan to undermine the credibility of the movement, which seized control of the Gaza Strip in 2007 after a brief civil war against the Fatah movement led by Western-backed Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.
According to the Egyptian officials, Hamas will face growing resistance by activists who will launch protests similar to those in Egypt that have led to the downfall of two presidents since the Arab Spring in 2011. Cairo plans to support such protests in an effort to cripple Hamas.
“Gaza is next,” said one senior security official, who requested anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue. “We cannot get liberated from the terrorism of the Brotherhood in Egypt without ending it in Gaza, which lies on our borders.”
Asked why Egyptian intelligence is not going after Hamas now, another senior security official said: “Their day will come.”
Egypt accuses Hamas of backing Al-Qaeda-linked militant groups which have stepped up attacks against security forces in Egypt’s Sinai peninsula over the past few months.
Both the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas deny accusations of terrorism, and the Brotherhood says it is committed to peaceful activism.
Egypt’s military-backed government has cracked down hard on the Brotherhood, arresting almost its entire leadership and thousands of its backers as well as formally declaring it a terrorist organization.
Freely elected President Mohammad Morsi is now on trial on charges of inciting the murder of protesters during his presidency.
The situation is different in Gaza, where Hamas, an offshoot of the Brotherhood, is heavily armed, has years of experience fighting Israel, and moves swiftly to squash dissent.
A Hamas official said the comments made to Reuters by Egyptian officials showed Cairo was inciting violence and trying to provoke chaos.
“We reaffirm that Hamas did not and never would intervene in the internal Egyptian affairs,” Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri told Reuters. “No one should ever dream to weaken Hamas.”
So far, contacts between Egypt and Fatah have been limited to discussing ways to help Fatah undermine Hamas, the officials said.
Hamas keeps Fatah party officials under very close watch in Gaza. A senior Fatah official in the occupied West Bank, where the party is far more powerful, denied any plot to oust Hamas.
“There is a lot of anger in Gaza. People are suffering, but protest is not easy. We cannot hope that Hamas will vanish tomorrow,” he said.
Hamas has an estimated 20,000 fighters, with another 20,000 in its police and security forces. Despite growing economic hardship in Gaza, the group can still draw on significant support from among the territory’s 1.8 million people.
But Egyptian officials hope to exploit tensions with rival militant groups, even if there are no signs of major splits yet.
“We know that Hamas is powerful and armed but we also know that there are other armed groups in Gaza that are not on good terms with Hamas and they could be used to face Hamas,” another Egyptian security source said.
“All people want is to eat, drink and have a decent living, and if a government, armed or not, fails to provide that, then the people will rise against it in the end,” the source said.
In early January, Cairo publicly hosted the first conference of a new anti-Hamas youth group called Tamarod, or rebel, the same name used by the Egyptian youth movement that led last year’s protests against Morsi.
Members of the Palestinian Tamarod stood with the Palestinian flag wrapped around their necks to highlight what they called Hamas’ crimes against activists in Gaza.
The event was attended by representatives from Egyptian liberal parties and Fatah.
“We support the movement and any peaceful movement against the cruelty of the Islamist group that is part of the terrorist Muslim Brotherhood organisation,” said Ayman al-Raqb, a Fatah official in Cairo in his speech at the conference.
The activists showed video clips of masked gunmen chasing and dragging away protesters, and posted banners showing activists who they said had been tortured by Hamas for their opposition.
The Gaza-based Palestinian Centre for Human Rights last year accused Hamas of orchestrating a fierce crackdown against activists suspected of trying to organise a Tamarod-like protest in November.
Egyptian officials hope that future Hamas crackdowns may turn the tide against the movement’s leadership.
“Surely, the world will not stand still and allow Hamas to kill Palestinians. Someone will interfere,” the Egyptian security official said. “But so far we are only working on firing the first spark.”
But officials also concede that the plan is likely to take years.
“The aid Egypt will mainly provide to the anti-Hamas groups will be logistical not financial. Tamarods don’t cost much,” one Egyptian security official said.
The plan to undermine Hamas reflects renewed confidence among Egypt’s security forces after being sidelined following the fall of long-time President Hosni Mubarak in 2011. Senior security officials are now determined to eliminate their Islamist foes for good – inside and outside Egypt.
They were angry when Morsi became the first Egyptian president to meet Hamas leaders in the presidential palace. Morsi also sent his prime minister to Gaza on the second day of an Israeli offensive on the enclave in November 2012.
Many Egyptians believe the Brotherhood intended to give part of the Sinai to Hamas.
The Brotherhood has consistently denied the allegation.
Morsi’s administration did acknowledge the problem posed by the tunnels under the border between Egypt and Gaza. His national security adviser last year said the government was flooding a number of tunnels he described as illegal.
But the Rafah border crossing between Egypt and Gaza was kept open for much of Morsi’s rule, allowing vital food and goods to flow into Gaza.
After Morsi’s overthrow, the army took over command of the Sinai and started destroying hundreds of tunnels. No Hamas official has been allowed to travel into Egypt since then.