David Miller
The Media Line
March 29, 2011 - 12:00am

A visiting Hamas leader to Cairo brought a conciliatory message amid signs ties between Egypt and the Islamist movement were beginning to thaw in the post-Mubarak era.

"Hamas has not and will not tamper with Egypt's national security," Mahmoud Al-Zahar told reporters in Cairo Monday, referring to Egyptian accusations of Hamas involvement in the bombing of an Alexandria church on New Year's Eve. Hamas was cautious to comment about the Egyptian uprising that began on January 25, but was emboldened by the revolution's success to oust its arch-rival, President Husni Mubarak on February 11.

During his visit to Cairo, Al-Zahar, the unofficial foreign minister, met with intelligence and foreign ministry officials and is expected to meet Egyptian Foreign Minister Nabil Al-Arabi and an unnamed representative of the Supreme Military Council, the body currently running the country. Al-Zahar said the Egyptians have promised to open the Rafah crossing between Gaza and Egypt and improve the treatment of Gaza passengers, Egyptian daily Al-Masry Al-Youm reported.

"It's clear that the new Egyptian government will have a new policy towards Hamas," Shadi Hamid, director of research at the Brookings Doha Canter, a Qatar-based think tank. "Hamas is popular in Egypt and the new government will have to reflect support of the Palestinian resistance. It would have been difficult to imagine such a visit only a few months ago."

Egypt has been a key player in reconciliation efforts between Hamas and Fatah, the two leading Palestinian factions which have been at odds since Hamas took control of the Gaza Strip in bloody coup in June 2007. Hamas has accused the regime of Husni Mubarak of bias towards Fatah, an accusation Al-Zahar reiterated on Monday.

"The Palestinian people will never forget the position of the former Egyptian government regarding the Israeli violence against the Gaza Strip and the position of the current Egyptian government which warned the Israelis from trying to repeat their aggression against the Strip," Al-Zahar said. Egypt's newly appointed Foreign Minister Al-Arabi urged Israel last week to refrain from attacking Gaza following an increase in missile launches from the Gaza Strip into Israel and the bombing of a Jerusalem bus stop that left one woman dead and dozens injured.

Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh was also forthcoming towards Egypt's new government. In a statement posted on the Hamas Government website, Youssef Rizqa, Haniyeh's political advisor, said the Prime Minister appreciated Egypt's "new positions" and would gladly come to Cairo if invited.

"For the first time in the history of the relationship, Palestinian and Egyptian ministers are communicating," Rizqa said. "This is a substantial development that did not take place in Mubarak's era." In a further sign of warming relations, Rizqa added that Hamas intended to re-open the Egyptian Consulate in Gaza, closed since 2007.

Mkhaimar Abu-Sada, a political scientist at Al-Azhar University in Gaza, said that Hamas sources claim that Prime Minister Haniyeh maintains daily contact with his Egyptian counterpart Issam Sharaf. A good working relationship also exists between the ministers of interior in Egypt and the Gaza Strip.

"Hamas feels that the new government is ready to stand by the Palestinians," Abu-Sada told The Media Line. He added that the "Palestinian file" has been transferred from the Egyptian internal intelligence apparatus (Mukhabarat) led by Omar Suleiman to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, indicating that the Egyptians have begun to view the relationship with the Gaza Strip in diplomatic, rather than security, terms.

Mubarak's Egypt had cooperated with Israel in combating arms smuggling from the Egyptian-controlled Sinai Peninsula into the Gaza Strip. In November 2009 Egypt began constructing an underground steel wall to block trade through an estimated 400 active tunnels. In April 2010, Hamas accused Egypt of pumping lethal gas into a tunnel, killing four smugglers.

Maha Azzam, an Egypt expert at Chatham House, a London-based research center, said it was hard to tell weather Al-Zahar's visit marked a watershed in bi-lateral relations.

"Contact between Hamas and the Egyptian administration was ongoing, even during the Mubarak era," Azzam told The Media Line. "Egypt always served as a go-between Hamas and Fatah. Time will tell whether anything else will emerge."

Egyptian officials have yet to comment on Al-Zahar's visit, but on Tuesday Egyptian authorities released 900 pieces of luggage belonging to Gazan pilgrims to Saudi Arabia who had traveled through Egypt in 2010. The Hamas Ministry of Religious Endowments told Maan news agency that up to 8,000 tons of baggage were confiscated by Egypt and kept in the Cairo airport. Repeated appeals by Hamas to the previous regime to release the baggage went unanswered, Ma'an reported.


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