Throughout the different stages of their relations with Egypt, Palestinians have always respected and abided by Egypt’s policies. Even when Palestinian and Egyptian interests are in conflict, the Palestinians, in their various political orientations, are accustomed to addressing Cairo with courtesy.
Recently, however, senior leaders of the Fatah political party, part of the Palestinian Authority (PA) in Ramallah in the West Bank, disregarded this well-established pattern by issuing a statement packed with accusations and attacks on Cairo.
Mohammad Shtayyeh, a former labor minister and a member of Fatah’s Central Committee, said in a July 9 interview on Palestine TV that Fatah is unhappy about Egypt's measures to alleviate the arduous living conditions in the Gaza Strip. Those measures, he said, work against the PA’s efforts to increase pressure on the rival Hamas party in Gaza. The PA wants Egypt to coordinate with Ramallah before taking any action in this regard.
On July 3, Maj. Gen. Jibril Rajoub, secretary of Fatah’s Central Committee and former commander of the Preventive Security Service in the West Bank, had accused certain unnamed parties in Egypt of acting improperly in Gaza. Hamas had reached understandings June 13 with dismissed Fatah leader Mohammed Dahlan that focused on alleviating Palestinians' suffering in Gaza by resolving the electricity crisis, opening the Rafah border crossing and resuming the Gaza reconstruction process.
Rajoub demanded that Egypt not allow such discussions to occur with the PA's knowledge.
Hamas broke off violently from the PA and Fatah in 2007, leaving Hamas in control of the Gaza Strip and Fatah with the West Bank. Decadelong tension began rising in April, when Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas sent Cairo his plan to punish Hamas by cutting staff salaries and cutting off electricity.
“However, Egypt rejected [the plan], fearing the situation in Gaza would blow up in its face. Abbas was supposed to put an end to his plan but he did not, so Egypt decided to bring [Abbas rival] Dahlan back into the Palestinian arena," Hani al-Masri, head of the Palestinian Center for Policy Research and Strategic Studies – Masarat, told Al-Monitor.
“Egypt and Fatah are at a crossroad; if their paths do not meet, tension will rise and each will go their way until they finally reach estrangement.”
Abdallah Abdallah, a member of Fatah's Revolutionary Council, told Al-Monitor the upgrade in Hamas' relations with Egypt is temporary and a measure of convenience. The situation doesn't worry Fatah, according to Abdallah, and Rajoub's and Shtayyeh's accusations were unfortunate anomalies.
“Despite some tension, Fatah's relationship with Egypt is strategic. We believe anything that comes from within Fatah and insults Egypt is a mistake that should be corrected. Our intel indicates that the Egyptian government prefers to get closer to Hamas at the expense of Fatah for temporary reasons linked to the security of Sinai. However, the Egyptian political circles will not approach Hamas and exclude Fatah because the Egyptian authorities are well aware of the historical relationship between Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood.”
The Muslim Brotherhood was affiliated with the previous Egyptian regime, and the current Egyptian government considers the Brotherhood to be a terrorist group. Hamas said in May that it would end its association with the Brotherhood, but many — especially Fatah and Israel — doubt that will happen.
Despite Abdallah's comments, the highly unusual public display of animosity between Fatah and Egypt raises questions about the real reason Fatah is so angry at Egypt and why the countries' bilateral channels failed to contain the conflict before it reached the media.
Egypt did not officially comment on the accusations made by Fatah leaders, but its anger was obvious when Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry failed to welcome Abbas at the Cairo airport July 8. Instead, he was received by Egyptian Minister of Electricity Mohamed Shaker and some security officials. Sisi did meet with Abbas on July 9, but they were unsuccessful in defusing tensions.
Abdel-Qader Yassin, a Palestinian author and political science expert, told Al-Monitor, “Rajoub has had a problem with Egypt ever since it denied him entry at Cairo airport back in February without explaining the reasons. It is true that the accusations against Egypt were harmful, and they also impede Abbas’ attempt to reach an understanding with Cairo and show that he is unable to control some Fatah circles.”
In this context, Hamas spokesman Abdul Latif Qanou told Al-Monitor, “Rajoub's remarks about Egypt are controversial. They do not represent the Palestinians who see Egypt as a support system for which they have nothing but respect and appreciation. The Palestinians greatly appreciate the Egyptian efforts to help the Palestinian steadfastness and their dream to overcome their crises and break their siege.”
On July 8, the head of Hamas’ political bureau, Ismail Haniyeh, attended a ceremony held by the Egyptian community in Gaza in a funeral home to honor the 23 Egyptian soldiers who died during an Islamic State attack July 7 in Sinai. Haniyeh's attendance signals Hamas' improved relations with Egypt. There was no ceremony in the West Bank, where Fatah is in charge, to mourn the soldiers.
Imad Mohsen, a spokesman for Fatah's Democratic Reformist Current, led by Dahlan, told Al-Monitor, “The Fatah leaders' attacks on Egypt prove that they were provoked by the Egyptian understandings with Hamas and Dahlan. Such attacks do not show any diplomacy and are a clear interference in Egyptian affairs, which contradicts the policy Fatah has long adopted. However, Abbas’ entourage is convinced that Egypt is moving forward with its arrangements in Gaza. Meanwhile, he is unable to silence some Fatah leaders, as they are competing with one another to succeed him and he can no longer oblige them to stick to a decent discourse worthy of Egypt.”
There has been widespread speculation that Sisi intends to see Abbas step down as PA president. Yoni Ben Menachem, a former Israeli intelligence officer, told News 1 on July 3 that Sisi will topple Abbas. He said Sisi is preparing to eliminate Abbas from the political scene and is no longer taking him seriously. This knowledge makes Abbas nervous and may be pushing him to lash out at those surrounding him.
The relationship between Fatah and Egypt has reached the bone-breaking stage, especially with Abbas as head of the movement. Abbas has a personal issue with Egypt because it insists on bringing Dahlan back to Fatah. Perhaps Egypt believes it is now time to turn the page on Abbas once and for all.