CAIRO (Reuters) - Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal looked like a man at home in Cairo this week as he used the Egyptian capital to declare terms for a ceasefire with Israel, his confidence reflecting the historic changes shaping an Arab world more supportive of his cause.
In Cairo for talks on the Gaza crisis, the bearded Hamas leader in exile has been warmly received in a country where officials viewed his movement with suspicion bordering on outright hostility when Hosni Mubarak was in power.
In stark contrast to those days, a smiling Meshaal was photographed on Monday meeting President Mohamed Mursi, the head of a new Egyptian administration shaped by the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas’ spiritual mentor. Mursi, unlike Mubarak, is taking a personal interest in truce talks Egypt is overseeing.
Behind the scenes, Hamas leaders are finding a very different attitude from the Egyptian mediators. In Mubarak’s days, the Palestinians often complained that Egyptian intelligence chief Omar Suleiman, who died earlier this year, would try to impose Israel’s terms on them.
“The Egyptian brothers in the intelligence service have always helped in truce matters, this time they are being more helpful because President Mursi is in charge,” said a source close to Hamas. “The former regime used to pressure us more than they did Israel,” the source said.
The changes buoying Hamas have started to become clear in the tone from other Arab states too - a delegation of eight Arab ministers arrived in Gaza on Tuesday in the latest visit to express solidarity with the Palestinians.
The shift marks a challenge to the policies of Western governments including the United States. They shun Hamas as a terrorist group, dealing instead with the Palestinian Authority, from which Hamas seized control of Gaza in 2007.
It also shows that public opinion is starting to have an impact on the foreign policies of Arab states long run by autocrats who have paid scant attention to the views of populations broadly supportive of the Palestinians.
“PART OF THE FUTURE”
“Hamas has always been arguing that it is part of the future of the region and the Palestinian Authority was part of the past,” said Ghassan Khatib, who worked as the authority’s spokesman until September.
“This concept seems to have been consolidated more with this war,” Khatib, now a teacher of Arab studies at Birzeit University in the West Bank, told Reuters.
While Meshaal’s public profile has been the ascent, President Mahmoud Abbas, head of the West Bank-based Palestinian Authority, has been trying to stay relevant.
Accused of complicity in the last major Israeli offensive in Gaza, Abbas has appeared more in tune with the Arab mood this time around, calling for protests and offering diplomatic support by calling for Tuesday’s Arab League visit to the Hamas-run territory.
Qatar, a tiny but influential Gulf emirate allied to the United States, is leading the way in forging a new Arab approach towards Gaza and Hamas. Its head of state visited Gaza last month, pledging $400 million in aid.
There were flashes of the new mood at the weekend during an Arab League meeting called to debate the Gaza crisis.
Arab ministers long criticized for inaction said this time there must be concrete steps. Following the example set by Egypt’s prime minister, who visited Gaza last Friday, eight Arab ministers accompanied by the Arab League secretary general then drew up plans for their trip.
Analysts question what Arab states, particularly Egypt, can offer beyond diplomatic, financial and moral support. Israel remains militarily far superior to neighboring nations that remember a string of ruinous wars with Israel.
Yet the Gaza visit underlines changes in the Middle East since in 2008/09 - the last time Hamas fought a war of this length with Israel. Back then, Hamas’ list of regional friends was much shorter and mostly limited to Syria, Iran and the Lebanese guerrilla and political movement Hezbollah.
Hamas has since cut ties with Damascus because of the crisis unleashed by the Syrian government’s efforts to crush a revolt against President Bashar al-Assad. The group’s exiled leadership have moved out of the Syrian capital.
They now spend their time between Cairo and Doha, the Qatari capital, though neither has been named as a formal headquarters in exile. Both Sunni states are positioning themselves to exert influence over Hamas, even as the group preserves its ties with Shi‘ite Iran.
“The regional calculus has changed,” said Shadi Hamid, director of research at the Brookings Doha Center. “This isn’t 2008 all over again. Some people say these are symbolic moves, but I think the symbolic and rhetorical go a long way.”
“Under Mubarak, you had mediators who were deemed as sympathetic to one side. Now Egypt has more leverage with Hamas. When Mohamed Mursi says: ‘This is what we should be doing,’ he is going to be listened to more than Mubarak was,” he said.
Smiling and joking, Meshaal reflected his group’s growing confidence during a 90-minute encounter with Egyptian journalists on Monday. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanayhu had badly misread the new regional picture, he said.
“He wanted to test Egypt, and the Egyptian response was loud and clear. He wanted to test the Arab spring, and found the extent of solidarity of the Arab Spring nations with Gaza and its people,” he said.
Meshaal, installed as the leader of Hamas in 2004 after Israel assassinated the group’s wheelchair-bound leader Sheikh Ahmed Yassin in Gaza, survived a 1997 Israeli attempt to kill him by injecting him with poison in broad daylight in a street in Amman, the Jordanian capital.
Additional reporting by Nidal al-Mughrabi in Gaza and Ali Sawafta in Ramallah; Editing by Giles Elgood