To those who thought that the Arab Spring had the potential to moderate Hamas into pragmatic political actors, think again.
According to a Haaretz report last week, a secret vote in Hamas was conducted to elect new members to the group’s political bureau and Shura Council. The results saw Ismail Haniyeh, the Prime Minister of the Hamas’ administrative wing in the Gaza Strip, get elected to head the movement’s political bureau in Gaza. While Hamas has officially denied the reports, senior members of the group have allegedly confirmed that secret elections happened.
Khaled Mashaal, the politburo chief of Hamas’ political exiled wing, is apparently going to remain in his position and will be the group’s “overall” leader. But crucial areas currently under his control, namely Hamas’ budget and military wing, will be transferred to the new leadership of Gaza’s political bureau.
And that is bad news. Haniyeh is a noted hardliner who is less amenable to finding a political solution with Hamas’ Palestinian political rival Fatah or Israel for that matter. Other noted hardliners, including Mahmoud Zahar and members of Hamas’ military wing, also won positions in the secret elections. While Mashaal is still of course a member of Hamas—which has so far refused to accept the Quartet Principles—he showed signs of wanting to move Hamas in the direction of political pragmatism.
Mashaal had to reconfigure his approach for political engagement in the wake of the Arab uprisings over the past year, which have been destabilising for Hamas. It has to abandon its political patron in Syria and with that its home for political operations in Damascus. As a result, it lost Iran as its main financial backer, who abandoned the group after it refused to condone its ally, Bashar al-Assad and his bloody crackdown on pro-democracy protests.
The weakness of Hamas’ position most likely figured in Mashaal’s decision to start reconciliation talks with its political rival Fatah exactly one year ago, which resulted in the two signing a deal in Doha February of this year. Mashaal had also asked Hamas militants to halt attacks against Israel.
Both Qatar and Turkey also put their hopes in Mashaal, believing that he could bring Hamas back in to the political fold. The changing dynamics that the Arab uprisings created provided a perfect opportunity to pressurise Hamas into moderation and wean it away from Iranian influence—something that both Qatar and Turkey hoped could happen by Hamas first reconciling with Fatah. The two countries also filled in when Iran left a black hole in Hamas’ financial pocket.
However, if the now stalled-once-again-reconciliation deal with Fatah highlighted the inherent rifts between Fatah and Hamas, it also magnified the internal rifts within Hamas itself. Hamas’ Gaza based leadership opposed the Doha agreement. And controversially, around the time that the Doha agreement was being signed, Ismail Hanieyh was re-exploring options with Iran when he paid a visit to Tehran in February 2012. Underlying the antagonism of Hamas’ Gaza based leadership to the Doha agreement was, however, most likely an objection to the political direction Mashaal wanted to take Hamas.
Now with the secret elections, Mashaal has effectively been side lined, and with that so is the hope of Hamas moderating any time soon.