Page 1 of 2

Will Egypt's Uprising Help Hamas?

A top Hamas official weighs in on what the pro-Democracy protests sweeping the Arab world mean for the Palestinian cause.

| Thu Feb. 3, 2011 7:00 AM EST

"The Palestinians believe that most of the Arab regimes are puppets of the United States," says Ahmed Yousef.

This is why the American-educated deputy foreign minister of Hamas—a terrorist organization in the eyes of United States, Israel, and the European Union—glimpses what could be an opportunity in the wave of pro-democracy demonstrations that have recently swept Tunisia, Egypt, and other Arab nations. With American-backed regimes out of the way, his thinking goes, Democratic governments will take power whose leaders are more sympathetic to the Palestinian cause—and less influenced by Western diplomatic pressure. "If these democratic revolutions bring more Arab patriots to lead the Arab world," he says, "this will strengthen the Palestinian position."

Shut out of peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, Hamas has long been viewed as too extreme to bargain with. Yet as these negotiations crumble, Yousef may have the chance to capitalize on the uprisings to bring Hamas back to the table—that is, if the upheaval doesn't spark a new Palestinian civil war. Yousef hopes the popular revolts in Egypt and Tunisia will inspire long-overdue Palestinian elections, and lead to the formation of a "unity government" that is recognized by the west—and which includes Hamas.

In 2006, Hamas won free and fair Palestinian parliamentary elections, but efforts to form a unity government subsequently collapsed. Hamas then seized control of Gaza amidst a bloody civil war and its political rival, the Western-backed Fatah party, retained control of the West Bank. Gazan civilians have since suffered a devastating blockade by Israel and Egypt, while Fatah has negotiated with Israel on behalf of all the Palestinian people.

As Yousef slammed Israel's deadly May 31 flotilla attack, other Hamas leaders were raiding the offices of non-profits across Gaza. : Photo by Ashley BatesAs Yousef slammed Israel's deadly May 31 flotilla attack, other Hamas officials were raiding the offices of non-profits across Gaza. Photo by Ashley BatesYousef sees the revolt against the autocratic, US-backed regime Egypt as a chance to strengthen his movement's position, particularly as Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood, which has ties to Hamas, seems poised to gain political influence. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu recently referred to the Muslim Brotherhood as a "tremendous threat." The Obama administration, meanwhile, has said it sees a role for the Brotherhood in a new Egyptian government—so long as the group continues to renounce violence and supports Democratic principles.

While Yousef says he appreciates past efforts by the government of President Hosni Mubarak to mediate reconciliation between Hamas and Fatah, he lambasts Egypt and other Arab governments for colluding with western powers. "Most of the people in Egypt support the Palestinians," he explains. "So if you have a democracy in Egypt, you guarantee that the leaders will stand behind the Palestinians and put pressure on the American administration to be impartial to the conflict."

Advertise on

In recent days, Palestinians have tried to organize protests in support of Egypt's anti-government demonstrators, but these attempts have quickly been squelched by Hamas and Fatah. So as much as Yousef may want to see a Democratic revolution come to the Middle East, the government he represents is also threatened by it.

Yousef's background makes him an apt choice to soften Hamas' image in the Western world.

While Yousef decries America's "pro-Israel" mediation and "subversion" of Palestinian democracy, he looks back fondly on his nearly two decades living and studying in the US. His experience taught him that "America was not this kind of evil that we used to hear about and read about in books." Over the years, he has contributed to 24 English and Arabic books, many of which plead for East-West dialogue and collaboration. Three of his eight children are American citizens. Occasionally, he uses Google Earth to revisit his former neighborhoods in Los Angeles, Chicago, and suburban Virginia.

Yousef's background makes him an apt choice to soften Hamas' image in the Western world. Yousef says he's "not like those hard-liners who all the time stick to their rhetoric," and he tries to "use the right language" in representing the Hamas government to Western audiences. A stout, 60-year-old with a warm, affable demeanor, he writes tactfully worded editorials in American, European, and Israeli newspapers. He says that Hamas is a movement of "freedom fighters who all the time are looking to solve the problem peacefully, if that's possible, and other [ways] if that's not.""

Yet it's often hard to square Yousef's moderate rhetoric with Hamas' iron-fisted approach to governing and track record of violence. And while he may display the gentler side of a group implicated in numerous suicide bombings and other acts of terror, it's sometimes unclear whether he's speaking for anyone but himself; indeed, members of Hamas have accused him of distorting the group's views.

Page 1 of 2