Cairo, Egypt (CNSNews.com) – A 12-strong Hamas delegation traveled to Cairo this week in an attempt to improve the Palestinian group’s fractured relations with the Egyptian government, but faces demands that it sever ties with the Islamist group that spawned it – the Muslim Brotherhood.
The visit by the Gaza-based militants came in a response to a public statement by Internal Affairs Minister Magdy Abdul Ghafar, accusing Hamas of involvement in the June 2015 assassination of Egypt’s prosecutor general, Hisham Barakat.
During meetings with Egyptian officials the Hamas delegation, led by senior leader Mahmoud Al-Zahar, repeatedly denied the accusations.
Hamas, a U.S.-designated foreign terrorist organization, was established in 1987 as the Palestinian branch of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, and that affiliation lies at the heart of today’s tensions between Hamas and Cairo.
After toppling the Muslim Brotherhood government of Mohammed Morsi in 2013, President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi cracked down on the Islamist group, imprisoning its leaders and declaring it a terrorist organization.
In order to restore relations with Egypt, Egyptian intelligence chief Khaled Fawzy told Hamas, it must cut its ties with the Muslim Brotherhood – something Hamas has shown little willingness to do.
Hamas did not give a public response to the appeal, but after the meeting both Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood claimed that they had parted ways a long time ago – something both Egyptian and Israeli intelligence agencies dispute.
Mikhaimar Abusada, political scientist at the Azhar University in Gaza, said Hamas’ links with the Muslim Brotherhood carry a heavy cost for the Palestinian group.
“Should the two continue to be connected, Hamas would be politically isolated and Egypt could take strict measures against Hamas, such as extending the closure of the Rafah crossing [between Egypt and Gaza], preventing Hamas members from traveling through it and carrying on with the destruction of the remaining tunnels,” he said.
Meanwhile both Hamas and the now-outlawed Muslim Brotherhood denied involvement in the assassination of Barakat, who died of wounds sustained in a bomb blast.
“These accusations are absurd and false,” said Abdul-Mawgood Dardery, spokesman for the Freedom and Justice Party, the Muslim Brotherhood’s political wing which although also banned continues to operate underground. “We are facing a brutally repressive military coup with legitimate peaceful struggle.”
The Brotherhood has said the government’s accusations are intended to cover suspicions of its own involvement in a more recent killing, the death last January of an Italian graduate student, Giulio Regini.
Regini’s body was found in Cairo bearing marks of torture, prompting allegations of security force involvement – and a European Parliament resolution urging the E.U. to suspend military aid to Egypt as a result. The government has denied any connection to his death.
Difficulties between Egypt and Hamas deepened when the government mounted counterinsurgency operations in the Sinai peninsula after Islamist groups carried out deadly attacks against Egyptian soldiers in 2014.
Egypt responded by shutting the Rafah border crossing, and then later destroyed tunnels under the border which Hamas had long used to smuggle people, arms and goods.
On the Israeli side of the Gaza Strip, Israel has also been closing and destroying tunnels used by the group to smuggle goods – and to launch terror attacks inside Israel.
Hamas spokesman in Gaza, Sami Abu Zuhri, said the group “stresses its interest in preserving the security and stability of Egypt and we are looking forward to a new era in relations.”
But despite Hamas’ hopes for restored ties, opposition persists in Cairo.
“Hamas took a part in the [Barakat] assassination and we should continue shutting down the tunnels to prevent Hamas from getting into Sinai,” said lawmaker and former foreign minister Mohamed al-Oraby.