February 24, 2009 Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 486

Rising Inter-Arab Tensions: Saudi Arabia and Egypt versus Syria and Iran Part II – Egypt Trades Accusations with Hamas, Syria, Iran

February 24, 2009 | By L. Azuri*
Saudi Arabia, Iran, Egypt | Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 486

The ongoing conflict between Hamas and Fatah has put a strain on Hamas–Egypt relations. Egypt is at loggerheads with Hamas over its refusal to hold early elections to the presidency and Legislative Council, its withdrawal from the Palestinian national dialogue talks in Cairo, and its ongoing rocket attacks on Israel. Also provocative to Egypt were recent statements by Hamas leaders, who condemned Egypt for failing to open the Rafah border.[1]

In response, Egypt accused Hamas of preventing Palestinian pilgrims from leaving Gaza on their way to Mecca, after Egypt had opened its borders to allow them to do so. Editorials in the Egyptian press stated that Hamas, under the guise of a devout Islamic movement, was sabotaging the Palestinian cause and harming the Palestinians even more than Israel was.

The crisis expanded to include Syria after the latter defended Hamas at the Arab League foreign ministers conference in Cairo, leading to reciprocal accusations between Syria and Egypt. Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Al-Mu'allem intimated at the conference that Egypt was not a fair arbitrator between Hamas and Fatah, while the Syrian press stated that Hamas should have been represented at the conference in order to defend itself against any accusations.

Reacting to Al-Mu'allem's statement, Egypt said that Syria was the one that had failed to act as an unbiased arbitrator in the Palestinian conflict. The Egyptian press stated that Syria was behind Hamas' withdrawal from the Palestinian national dialogue, that it wanted to fan the flames of intra-Palestinian conflict, and that it promoted the interests of Iran rather than those of the Arabs.

Egypt's relations with Iran have also been tense over the situation in Gaza. The Iranian leaders and press have made harsh accusations against Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, and during demonstrations in front of the Iranian Foreign Ministry building and the Egyptian interest office in Tehran, protesters called to execute Mubarak and threw firebombs at the Egyptian interest office. In response, Egypt accused Iran of interfering in Arab affairs and of exploiting the situation in Gaza to its own benefit, and the Egyptian press even called to sever diplomatic relations with Iran.

Following are excerpts from some recent press articles, statements, and reactions:

The Conflict between Egypt and Hamas

Khaled Mash'al vs Editor of Egyptian Daily

In a speech at a November 2008 conference of the Right of Return Forum in Damascus, Hamas political bureau head Khaled Mash'al criticized Egypt for not opening the Rafah border to ease the suffering of the Palestinians in Gaza. He said that "the Arab and international silence in the face of the criminal and oppressive siege on Gaza... is a disgrace," and told the Arab countries, "Do not leave the sea to foreigners. Every Arab country can send a ship to Gaza [as the Europeans have done]."[2]

In response, Egyptian MP Muhammad 'Ali Ibrahim, editor of the government daily Al-Gumhouriyya, wrote in his column: "Hamas Leader Khaled Mash'al resembles [former Palestinian Authority chairman] Yasser Arafat in one way – both are full of contradictions. But while Arafat's contradictions were meant to extract [concessions] from Israel, Khaled Mash'al is at odds with himself and with the [interests of] Gaza, for he is undermining the Palestinian cause and keeping the peace [process] in shackles. Unlike Arafat, Mash'al is more interested in his image as a hero of the resistance than in the Palestinian cause, and he is [promoting the interests] of Iran...

"Because Mash'al resides in Syria, enjoying Syria's political support and its insistence that he be treated on an equal footing with [Palestinian Authority President] Abu Mazen [i.e. Mahmoud 'Abbas], he does not urge Syria to send aid ships to Gaza, and does not call on the Syrian government to break the siege imposed on Gaza by Tel-Aviv.

"People [find it difficult] to believe Mash'al when he speaks of the hardships of the siege, while he himself resides in Damascus, far from the suffering of his people in Gaza. The people of Gaza live under siege, while Khaled Mash'al, free as a bird, spends a week in Tehran and a week in Lebanon meeting with [Hizbullah Secretary-General] Hassan Nasrallah. He sleeps on a comfortable mattress and eats Lebanese apples and Iranian pistachios...

"Mash'al's self-contradictory [behavior] is puzzling: He calls for unity in the Palestinian ranks, but [at the same time] refuses to recognize President 'Abbas, insists on boycotting the Cairo [national dialogue] conference, refuses to commit to the Mecca Agreement,[3] and objects to the holding of early elections for the Legislative Council and the presidency...

"If Mash'al refuses to conduct a dialogue, refuses to recognize Abu Mazen, and wants Gaza to be an Islamic ministate, why doesn't he declare an armed struggle – with the support of his eternal allies, Syria and Iran – as a first step towards liberating Palestine?!"[4]

Al-Ahram: Hamas Exploits Religious Rituals to Play Political Tricks

Egypt recently opened the Rafah crossing for a few days, to allow the passage of Palestinians who had received permits from Saudi Arabia to make a pilgrimage to Mecca – but the pilgrims did not arrive. Egypt accused Hamas of forcibly stopping the pilgrims,[5] and the incident led it to step up its statements against Hamas.

Mustafa Fiqi, chairman of the Egyptian Parliamentary Foreign Affairs Committee, said that Egypt would not tolerate the existence of an Islamic emirate on its eastern border, and accused Hamas of stopping the national dialogue.[6]

Even Al-Azhar Sheikh Dr. Muhammad Sayyed Tantawi implicitly criticized Hamas, stating that it is forbidden to prevent a Muslim from making a pilgrimage to Mecca if he so desires and if he is able to do so, and that whoever prevents him from performing this religious duty commits a reprehensible crime.[7]

An editorial in the Egyptian government daily Al-Ahram likewise criticized Hamas on this point: "Hamas members and militiamen used force [against the pilgrims], hitting old people and spilling blood on the sacred vestments [of the hajj ceremonies]. They fired tear gas and live bullets at the buses transporting the pilgrims from Gaza in order to prevent them from reaching the border, wounding 13 of them… With this behavior, Hamas revealed its true face. It was Hamas which seized power by force in the name of religion, and then neglected one of the fundamental principles of Islam [by] preventing thousands of Palestinians from performing the religious duty of the hajj

"If [even] Israel has never done such a thing since it occupied the Palestinian territories in 1967, who could have imagined that Hamas would act in this way – considering that it has [always] professed to be an Islamic movement that rules according to Allah's laws… What Muslim, Arab, or Palestinian conscience allows [Hamas], [based on] political considerations, to forcibly prevent Palestinian Muslims from performing a religious duty?...

"We have no quarrel with Hamas. We do not oppose it just because it is an Islamic movement, as its defenders claim. However, we are categorically against mixing religion with politics or using the sacred texts for political tricks and games…"[8]

Another Al-Ahram editorial stated: "The Hamas militias do not care whether or not the pilgrims reach their destination, and whether or not food and fuel are brought to the [Gaza] strip. The only thing that interests [Hamas] is establishing its control over Gaza and using its residents as a security for gaining political benefit – even if this means [stepping over] dead Palestinian bodies."[9]

Hamas: The Sheikh of Al-Azhar Has No Right to Preach to Us

In response to the statements by Al-Azhar Sheikh Dr. Muhammad Tantawi, Hamas executive bureau member Muhammad Nazzal said in Damascus that Tantawi had no right to set himself up as a preacher or mufti to Hamas, considering that he had shaken hands with "that criminal Shimon Peres, the leader of the murderers [who perpetrated] the Qana massacre, whose hands are stained with the blood of innocents in Palestine and Lebanon." He added that Hamas, on the other hand, "has sacrificed hundreds of its leaders and fighters defending the holy land..."[10]

The Conflict between Egypt and Syria

Syrian Foreign Minister: Egypt Isn't Neutral; Egypt: It's Syria That's Biased

Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Al-Mu'allem stated at the November 26, 2008 Arab League foreign ministers conference in Cairo that "the success of the Palestinian national dialogue depends on several basic conditions. First, during the dialogue, the mediator must maintain equal distance from both sides. He must suggest frameworks, and leave it [to the sides] to accept [or reject] them through dialogue."

Al-Mu'allem added that proposing early elections in these circumstances of strife would only increase the controversy and deepen the rift. He added that Hamas should have had the opportunity to present its position to the conference.[11]

Egyptian Columnist: Syria Is Stirring Up Internal Arab Conflicts

Egypt's counterstrike against Syria following Al-Mu'allem's statements mostly took the form of op-eds in the Egyptian press. Al-Ahram columnist Tareq Hassan wrote: "Egypt has liberated its [once occupied] land and has maintained full sovereignty – not so Syria. Egypt has supported the Palestinians in liberating parts of their occupied territory in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank and in establishing – for the first time in history – a national [Palestinian] authority on Palestinian land, while Syria has consistently opposed this historic development, and supported movements [that threaten to] bring back the occupation and destroy the PA through their blatant lies and foolhardy politics.

"Egypt has promoted, and still promotes, unity in Lebanon, Iraq, Palestine and Sudan, while Syria takes one side against the other, and is [thus] part of the problem in Lebanon, Palestine and elsewhere. Throughout history and to this very day, there have [always] been Syrian[-controlled] organizations, movements, or factions in various Arab countries, to the point that [Syria] is [even] fomenting strife among religious sects and streams...

"Egypt has always supported the Arab cause, while Syria has replaced the Arabs with others who have never been and never will be Arab [i.e. Iran]. Egypt acts, while Syria talks...

"Syria must exchange words for deeds... It must refrain from intervening in every internal Arab problem, and from joining non-Arab axes. Syria needs [to adopt] a policy that will prove that it is [working to] realize Arab interests."[12]

Al-Gumhouriyya Editor and MP Muhammad 'Ali Ibrahim: Syria's Support for the Palestinians is a Pretense

Another editorial attacking Syria was published by Egyptian MP Muhammad 'Ali Ibrahim, editor of the daily Al-Gumhouriyya. He wrote: "The nasty accusation [that Egypt is biased] comes from a man [Al-Mu'allem] who lives in a deep hole, and does not realize that the whole world knows that it is [Syria] who is plotting with Hamas against Fatah! It is a well-known trick, [frequently] used by politicians of limited intelligence, to take accusations made against them and direct them at others.

"Mr. Walid [Al-Mu'allem], the whole world knows that you [Syrians], and only you, are biased in favor of Hamas, and that it was you who convinced them to boycott the national dialogue conference in Cairo. Al-Mu'allem's statement, which called on Egypt to treat Hamas and Fatah equally, is misguided and should have been directed at Syria in the first place...

"Moreover, it is [Syria] that is sheltering 13 different Palestinian factions within its borders, using them as a force [to exert] pressure on the Palestinian decision-makers in Ramallah and on [their counterparts] in Lebanon. A few years ago, Syria had a Palestinian militia under its control. That is precisely the difference between [Syria] and Egypt – Cairo does not recruit Palestinians [to promote] its causes...

"You [Syrians], as well as Iran, are standing behind Hamas, claiming to support the Palestinian cause – but the truth is that you are [merely] using it to cover up your economic and political problems. By pretending to promote the Palestinian cause, you try to excuse to your people the deterioration of your economy and [the fact that] you have closed all doors leading to peace in the Golan...

"The solution, Mr. Walid [Al-Mu'allem], is for you to learn when and how to speak..."[13]

Muhammad 'Ali Ibrahim: Syria Is Handing the Region to Tehran on a Golden Platter

In another article, Ibrahim wrote: "The steps taken by Syria today are not promoting the Palestinian cause but rather the interests and goals of the Iranians. Forgetting its Arab identity, Syria is handing the region to Tehran on a golden platter. Damascus wants to perpetuate the Arab-Israeli conflict, and the whole world knows that it does not mind losing the Golan as long as it can regain its position in Lebanon...

"We know many secrets about Syria and about its relations with Iran and the Palestinians. Do not provoke us, or we will divulge [facts] that will shame you... The whole world knows that the goal of your actions is to avoid being tried by an international tribunal [for the assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq Al-Hariri], or, should you be convicted, to excuse your [behavior] by presenting yourselves as an [innocent] lamb being devoured by the wolf.

"This, despite the fact that the killer's [identity] is known, and the blood on his hands and clothes has not yet dried..."[14]

Egyptian Daily: Syria Is Sabotaging Egypt's Role

Karem Gaber, columnist for the Egyptian weekly Roz Al-Yousef and chairman of its board of directors, wrote in his weekly column: "While the Hamas leaders were expressing satisfaction with the agreement [on national dialogue] among the Palestinians – which took place in Cairo for the first time in [Palestinian] history – they were [already] arranging many escape routes through which to renounce the agreement. They probably felt that the decision was not in their hands, but in the hands of other countries [i.e. Syria and Iran], which were exerting pressure on them and subjecting them to various forms of intimidation and blackmail...

"Damascus is not at all interested in a tahdia [lull] between the Palestinian sides. If Syria had invested in the Golan even a small portion of the energy it invests in Palestine and Lebanon, it would have long since liberated the Golan. Syria is not interested in inter-Palestinian conciliation, and it is sabotaging Egypt's role [in promoting this conciliation]... Syria has its heart set on Lebanon and its eyes set on Palestine, but neither its heart nor its eyes are set on the Golan.

"Damascus is exerting huge pressures on Hamas not to sign an agreement that would thwart [Syria's] goals... The smell of danger is reaching us from afar, from Iran, which is sending out its cobwebs to Hamas through Iraq, Syria and Hizbullah. Danger is knocking on our door..."[15]

Syrian Ambassador to Egypt: Syria Won't Stoop to the Level of the Media Attacks Being Waged Against it in the Egyptian and Gulf Press

In response to the Egyptian assault, Syrian Ambassador to Egypt Yousef Al-Ahmad said that Syria, as president of the Arab League, would not stoop to the level of the media attacks being waged against it in the Egyptian and Gulf press.[16]

Not surprisingly, the task of defending Al-Mua'llem's statements in the Syrian press was given to an Egyptian journalist writing for the Syrian government daily Al-Thawra, Osama 'Abd Al-Haqq. He wrote: "Syria's position, [as expressed at the Arab foreign ministers conference in Cairo], stresses that Syria desires a real solution to the intra-Palestinian problem, anchored in healthy principles. Therefore, [it believes] that Hamas should have been represented at the conference... Both sides should have been present in order to express their positions and clarify the facts...

"Syria's groundbreaking position stresses the need to treat all factions without bias, and respect the Palestinians' wishes. This position has eventually triumphed, without a doubt, for Syrian diplomacy has taught the Arabs a lesson in [maintaining] neutrality in the Palestinian issue, as well as in other Arab [issues]."[17]

The Conflict Between Egypt and Iran

Calls in Iran for Mubarak's Execution; Egyptian FM: Iran Is Trying to Take Over Middle East

Tensions between Egypt and Iran were also rekindled following harsh Iranian attacks on Egypt.[18] In early December, student demonstrations were held in front of the Iranian Foreign Ministry building and the Egyptian interest office in Tehran, in which protesters called to execute Egyptian President Mubarak for his refusal to open the Rafah crossing and for his silence in the face of "Israel's crimes against the Palestinians." Demonstrators even threw firebombs at the interest office and waved photos from the assassination of Egyptian president Anwar Sadat.[19]

The leading conservative dailies of the Iranian regime, Kayhan and Jomhouri-ye Eslami, accused the Egyptian regime of treason, and called on the Egyptian people to topple it. Kayhan editor Hossein Shariatmadari, who is close to Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, praised Sadat assassin Khaled Islambouli, and called on others to follow his example.[20]

In response, the Egyptian Foreign Ministry protested to the director of the Iranian interest office in Cairo, Hossein Rajabi, against the attacks in the Iranian press and the anti-Egypt demonstrations in Tehran.[21] The Kuwaiti daily Al-Jarida reported that President Mubarak had warned, during a party conference, against "the Persian aspirations in the region," and of "Persia's desire to devour the Arab countries."[22] In a similar vein, Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmad Abu Al-Gheit accused Iran of attempting to take over the Middle East and impose its ideology on it, and of exploiting Hamas and the situation in Gaza for its own ends. He added that Iran contributed nothing to the Palestinian cause "except false claims, fairy tales, and lies."[23] In addition, an Egyptian MP close to President Mubarak called for demonstrations in Cairo against the Iranian leaders, similar to the anti-Mubarak demonstrations in Tehran.[24] Another manifestation of the deterioration in Egypt-Iran relations was the Egyptian Investments Ministry's decision to freeze new Iranian investments in Egypt.[25]

Iran, for its part, declared that it would not send representatives to Cairo to the Islamic Troika conference on aid to the Gaza Strip, in which representatives from Egypt, Iran, and Indonesia were to participate. An Iranian diplomat hinted that the reason for the conference boycott was the recent Iran-Egypt tension.[26] On the other hand, a group of Egyptian clerics, including Al-Azhar Sheikh Dr. Muhammad Sayyed Tantawi, Egyptian Mufti 'Ali Gum'a, and Sheikh Yousef Al-Qaradhawi, head of the International Union for Muslim Scholars, had declined invitations by Shi'ite clerics of Qom to visit Tehran.[27]

Al-Ahram Editor: Iran a Threat to Arab National Security

Al-Ahram chief editor Osama Saraya wrote: "Iran, in its stupidity, could not find anyone to blame for the situation [in Gaza] except those who have been taking serious, objective and practical measures to lift the siege [i.e. Egypt]… [Egypt] does not deserve the Iranian invective and the curses hurled against it by the [Iranian] Revolutionary Guards and by [various] influential circles. These are affiliated with [Iranian Supreme Leader] Ali Khamenei or with [Iranian President] Ahmadinejad, no matter how [hard] they try to deny it and claim that [the curses against Egypt come from] marginal or extremist movements… for everything in Iran is under the control [of Khamenei and Ahmadinejad]…

"Though we can easily expose [the Iranians] and their agents on every level, we always strive for [regional] stability, and we do not want to lift the lid off [Iran's] satanic acts in Iraq, Palestine, Lebanon, and the Arabian Gulf… However, we will not remain silent for long. [Besides,] all their games of interfering in Egypt's [internal] affairs were recently exposed when they praised the assassin of Egyptian president Anwar Sadat, produced that cursed film praising terrorists and killers,[28] and [held] despicable demonstrations in front of Egypt's representations and cultural centers in Tehran – as well as in other world capitals – [chanting despicable] slogans against Egypt, its president, and its honorable political and religious leaders…

"Iranian extremists – beware! You are playing with a fire that will end up defeating and burning you…"[29]

Al-Gumhouriyya Editor: Recall Egypt's Diplomats from Tehran

Al-Gumhouriyya editor Muhammad 'Ali Ibrahim likewise devoted a column to an attack on Iran: "I do not understand why we are so tolerant towards Iran. Its media curses us every morning, its demonstrators nearly tore the doors off their hinges at [our] interest [office] in Tehran – yet we continue to maintain diplomatic relations with it, as though it were a [powerful] superpower, when in fact it is more like a gang…

"The problem is that these provocations against Egypt and its diplomats in Tehran do not reflect some internal controversy in Iran, or [even protest over] some radical position of Egypt's on the Iranian nuclear dossier. Tehran has [other] aspirations and goals that are easily summed up – namely to take over the Gulf, to take the Palestinian issue hostage [by linking it to] the Iranian nuclear dossier, and to get as many Shi'ites as possible into leadership [positions] in [Arab] countries with large Shi'ite populations… Cairo's main problem with Iran is that it poses a threat to the Arabs' national security. Iran is as dangerous as Israel, if not more so…

"The goal of [Iran and Hamas] is not to liberate the residents of Gaza from the siege; that does not interest them in the slightest. [Their goal is] to embarrass Cairo, and to win political points that will benefit Iran, which is [merely] using the [Palestinian] issue…

"For this reason – and in light of Iran's hatred for Egypt, its people, and its leaders – I hope that you recall our diplomats [from Iran] as soon as possible, before they meet the same fate as our assassinated ambassador to Iraq, Ihab Al-Sharif…"[30]

*L. Azuri is a Research Fellow at MEMRI


[1] Egypt refuses to open the Rafah crossing as long as it is supervised and operated by Hamas rather than by the PLO.

[2] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), November 24, 2008.

[3] The Mecca Agreement between Hamas and Fatah, signed February 8, 2007, stipulated that a national unity government would be formed, and that the intra-Palestinian violence, ongoing since 2005, would be stopped.

[4] Al-Gumhouriyya (Egypt), November 27, 2008.

[5] Al-Ahram (Egypt), November 30, 2008.

[6] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), December 4, 2008.

[7] Al-Gumhouriyya (Egypt), December 3, 2008.

[8] Al-Ahram (Egypt), December 3, 2008. This editorial led Hamas to demand an apology from Al-Ahram (, December 4, 2008).

[9] Al-Ahram (Egypt), November 30, 2008.

[10] Al-Quds Al-'Arabi (London), December 4, 2008.

[11] Al-Thawra (Syria), November 27, 2008.

[12] Al-Ahram (Egypt), November 29, 2008.

[13] Al-Gumhouriyya (Egypt), November 28, 2008.

[14] Al-Gumhouriyya (Egypt), November 29, 2008.

[15] Roz Al-Yousef (Egypt), November 30, 2008.

[16] Al-Akhbar (Syria), December 2, 2008.

[17] Al-Thawra (Syria), December 1, 2008.

[18] See MEMRI Special Dispatch No. 2074, "Iranian Film Calling Sadat Traitor Strains Egypt-Iran Relations," October 7, 2008, Iranian Film Calling Sadat Traitor Strains Egypt-Iran Relations; MEMRI Inquiry and Analysis 426, "Iran's Attempts to Renew Relations with Egypt," March 12, 2008, Iran's Attempts to Renew Relations with Egypt.

[19] Fars (Iran), November 30, 2008 and December 9, 2008; Kayhan, Jomhouri-ye Eslami (Iran), November 27, 2008; IRNA (Iran), November 26, 2008.

[20] See MEMRI Inquiry and Analysis No. 479, "Calls in Iran to Topple Egyptian, Saudi Regimes," December 12, 2008, Calls in Iran to Topple Egyptian, Saudi Regimes.

[21] Al-Ahram (Egypt), December 10, 2008.

[22] Al-Jarida (Kuwait), December 11, 2008.

[23] Al-Masri Al-Yawm (Egypt), December 15, 2008.

[24] Al-'Arab (Qatar), December 12, 2008.

[25] Al-Misriyoun (Egypt), December 11, 2008.

[26] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), December 16, 2008.

[27] Al-Quds Al-Arabi (London), December 20, 2008.

[28] See MEMRI SD. No. 2074, "Iranian Film Calling Sadat Traitor Strains Egypt-Iran Relations," October 7, 2008, Iranian Film Calling Sadat Traitor Strains Egypt-Iran Relations

[29] Al-Ahram (Egypt), December 16, 2008.

[30] Al-Gumhouriyya (Egypt), December 16, 2008.

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