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Thursday, June 21, 2007

Egypt Moves to Isolate Hamas


CAIRO, Egypt — Egypt moved forcefully Thursday to isolate Hamas, calling a regional summit next week including the Israelis and Palestinians — and shunning contacts with the militant group after its takeover of Gaza.
More than seeking peace with Israel, Egypt and other U.S. Arab allies are seeking to prevent the new power of Islamic radicals in Gaza from strengthening fundamentalists on their own soil. They also fear Gaza will become a stronghold for Iranian influence on their doorsteps.
Egypt in particular has much to lose. A strong Hamas ruling Gaza, on Egypt's border, could encourage the Muslim Brotherhood, the most powerful and popular political challenger to Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak's government. It could also foment Islamic militants that Egypt has battled for decades to put down.
Monday's summit in the Egyptian Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheik aims to boost moderate Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas by showing he can move ahead with the peace process with Israel despite the Hamas hold on Gaza. The summit will gather Abbas, Mubarak, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Jordan's King Abdullah II.
The following day, Mubarak will meet in Sharm with Saudi King Abdullah, seeking to unify an Arab front behind Abbas and against Hamas.
Abbas will call for a resumption of peace talks with Israel, arguing that only progress toward Palestinian statehood can serve as a true buffer against Hamas, said Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat.
"The most important thing to realize is that time is of the essence," Erekat said. "We need to deliver the end of occupation, a Palestinian state. If we don't have hope, Hamas will export despair to the people."
Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia have said the sole legitimate Palestinian government is the West Bank-based Cabinet formed by Abbas, who dissolved the power-sharing government between his Fatah group and Hamas following Gaza's fall.
Egypt moved its embassy from Gaza to the West Bank, and Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit indicated Cairo was shunning Hamas officials.
"Egypt will always be in contact with the legitimate authority," Aboul Gheit told reporters on Wednesday, referring to Abbas, when asked if Cairo was in contact with Hamas.
The swift, shocking Hamas victory in Gaza wrecked Egypt's longtime attempts to mediate between Abbas and Hamas, the cornerstone of its Palestinian policy. Cairo has sought to moderate Hamas so the Palestinians can move ahead with peacemaking with Israel.
Now, Mubarak's government depicts Hamas as an enemy posing a direct threat to Egypt's security.
"Its not in Egypt's interests (to permit) the presence of a religious state on its borders, and it will do its best to end such a presence," said Ali Eldin Helal, a top ruling party official.
Aboul Gheit accused Iran, a top financer of Hamas, of being behind the upheaval.
"The Iranian moves have encouraged what Hamas has done in Gaza. This presents a threat to the Egyptian national security," he said this week. "Gaza is only a stone's throw away from Egypt."
Every night, commentators on state-run television lash out at Hamas and try to draw a parallel with the Brotherhood.
"Hamas is a religious faction and for them, religion comes first, not the home country," said Mustafa el-Fiqi, a senior ruling party lawmaker, on a popular prime time show Monday, echoing past government criticisms of the Brotherhood. "Hamas is a time bomb and Egypt cannot simply keep silent."
"The Taliban are on our border," proclaimed the pro-government weekly Rose El-Yousef magazine on its cover this week.
Egypt runs a risk if it takes too heavy a hand with Hamas and turns its back on Gaza. Gaza's eight-mile border with Egypt is its only land link to the Arab world, a boundary vital to the 1.4 million Palestinians living there. If the humanitarian situation in Gaza worsens, Egypt could be blamed, prompting a backlash at home, where sympathy for Palestinians is high.
But the border is also punctured by tunnels smuggling weapons and explosives in both directions. Egypt fears radicalism — and weapons — could spread from Gaza into its Sinai Peninsula, where suicide bombers have attacked three tourist resorts since 2004.
On the political front, if Hamas is successful in running Gaza, Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood could reap the benefits, a major worry for Mubarak's government, which has waged an all-out campaign the past two years to eliminate the movement as a rival. Hamas began as an offshoot of the Brotherhood and ties between the two groups remain strong.
The Brotherhood stunned the Egyptian government in 2005 parliament elections by winning more than a fifth of the legislature's seats, making it the biggest opposition bloc. Soon after, Mubarak put off scheduled local elections, fearing a strong Brotherhood showing.
Security forces have arrested more than 800 Brotherhood supporters this year.
In elections this month for parliament's upper house, the ruling party was accused by rights groups and other observers of widespread vote fraud aimed at ensuring its victory. Its candidates nearly swept the vote, and none of the 19 Brotherhood candidates won seats.
The Brotherhood denies it is working closely with Hamas.
"Whatever our relations with them, they are taking their own decisions independently," said Mohammed Habib, the Brotherhood's deputy leader.
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