Hamas reels as Egypt accuses movement of conspiracy, attacks

GAZA CITY — The ruling Hamas movement in the Gaza Strip was dealt another blow Friday when Egyptian media announced deposed President Mohamed Morsi would be charged with collaborating with Hamas to break out of prison during the 2011 uprising.

An offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas has come under fire by pro-military forces in Egypt since the army there ousted Morsi, a Brotherhood leader, in a coup earlier this month.

Media personalities and anti-Morsi Egyptians have blamed the group, which maintains an armed wing to carry out attacks on Israel, for militant assaults in North Sinai and other unrest throughout the country.

Though Egypt shares a border with the Gaza Strip, Hamas government officials in Gaza have denied any interference in Egyptian affairs.

The charges leveled against Morsi this week include coordinating with Hamas militants to mount an escape from Egypt’s Wadi Natroun prison in 2011, killing the prison’s guards in the process, Egyptian state media said.

Brotherhood leaders present during the jailbreak said they fled with the help of locals who stormed the prison. The incident took place in the midst of an unprecedented revolt that saw Egypt’s notoriously brutal police forces routed in streets and prisons across the country.

"Hamas condemns this move since it is based on the premise that the Hamas movement is hostile," spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri told AFP of Friday’s accusations. "This is a dangerous development.”

On Friday, thousands of demonstrators turned out to support Egypt’s defense minister, Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, in what he said would be a new fight against “terrorism.” Thousands also took to the streets to call for Morsi's release. He is currently being held in military detention, and has not been heard from since he was deposed on July 3. 

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In a sign the Gaza-based movement is growing more sensitive to charges it is responsible for Egypt’s turmoil, Hamas security forces closed Thursday the offices of two media companies for publishing false reports about its activities in Egypt.

The government shut down the Saudi-owned Al-Arabiya news channel and Palestinian news website Ma’an News Agency after both outlets reported that some of Egypt’s Brotherhood leaders had fled to Gaza in the wake of the coup.

Citing Israeli media, the reports said the leaders were supervising the Brotherhood activities in Egypt from a Gaza City hotel room.

Pro-Morsi supporters have staged weeks-long sit-ins in at least two locations in Cairo to protest Morsi’s ouster and detention. Morsi and at least 20 other top Brotherhood leaders are currently in jail.

Egyptian and regional media outlets hostile to the Brotherhood have used the reported links between the two sides as evidence Morsi and his fellow Islamists are plotting to carry out attacks against the Egyptian state.

Explosions in Sinai and outside police stations near Cairo have raised fears that an armed opposition to the military coup is forming.

But while Morsi helped broker a cease-fire between Hamas and Israel during an Israeli assault on Gaza last November, Hamas remained largely isolated under Morsi’s yearlong rule.

Egypt-imposed restrictions still crippled passenger traffic at the Egypt-Gaza border at Rafah. Hamas officials said they repeatedly approached the Morsi-led government to propose a free-trade zone at Rafah, but were rebuffed.

Egyptian intelligence continued to oversee Egypt’s contacts with Hamas, maintaining a policy that views the movement as a potential threat to the country’s national security.

Top Hamas leader Mahmoud al-Zahar told Radio Sawa, a Congress-funded Arabic-language service, that the fresh accusations about Hamas activity in Egypt were “a big lie.”

He blamed loyalists of former President Hosni Mubarak, toppled in the 2011 uprising, of using Egypt’s turmoil to incite against Hamas in the media.

At home, Hamas government spokesman Ihab al-Ghussein said Ma’an and Al-Arabiya need to “work in accordance with Palestinian laws.”

Yossif al-Ostaz from Gaza’s journalists syndicate described the media crackdown as “aggressive,” saying it violates freedom of speech guaranteed under international law.

Hamas, it seems, is scrambling to contain the fallout from fast-moving events that have unseated an ally and placed the Islamist group in Egypt’s crosshairs.

In North Sinai, a restive area that borders Gaza, the military recently moved to close the smuggling tunnels that burrow under the Gaza-Egypt border.

The underground passages furnish Gaza with commercial and other cheap goods either too expensive or unavailable to them under Israel’s ongoing blockade of the territory.

Hamas, a sworn enemy of Israel, profited handsomely from the tunnel trade that ferries everything from petrol to cement and passenger cars into the strip.

But now, according to the United Nations, the Egyptian military has managed to close some 80 percent of the tunnels.

Gaza is experiencing widespread fuel shortages and construction has all but stopped as cement and other imports from Egypt are halted.

Mkhaimar Abu Saada, a professor of political science at al-Azhar University in Gaza, said Egypt’s moves against Hamas would have grave consequences for the movement.

"This is just a first step in a series of retaliatory steps against Hamas," he said.