The Shura Council elections were held on April 1st in the InterContinental Hotel in Nasr City in Cairo. They were conducted under the supervision of judicial and oversight committees according to the Palestinian website Amad. The election also included Hamas’s Executive Committee and all members of its Political Bureau.
Many officials and commentators agree that Mishal’s win will help bolster Palestinian reconciliation efforts. Likewise they feel that his victory will strengthen the Arab, Islamist, and international relationships that Hamas has built over the past twenty years of Mishal’s reign in addition to increasing Hamas’s involvement in the international community. But more importantly observers believe that his victory will help ameliorate the divisions within Hamas that have risen to the surface of late, a strange occurrence for an organization that usually keeps any internal differences hidden from the public eye.
A Hamas source in Gaza said the changes taking place in the Arab region, “Pushed Hamas to choose Mishal. He has given Hamas a national and non-partisan face, and he has extensive contacts in the Arab and Muslim world and beyond.” He specified that Mishal’s good standing with some international bodies may contribute to removing Hamas’s name from terrorist lists. The source added that he is highly capable of balancing Arab and international politics, has a nuanced understanding of the region’s politics, and is accepted by most of Hamas’s various components.
Another source added that Mishal is the most widely accepted figure both locally and regionally. He is on good terms with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, Fatah, Arab leaders, and various other factions.
For all these reasons, the announcement of his electoral victory was welcomed by many, especially by President Abbas, who called Mishal to congratulate him personally. Izzat al-Rishq, who lost his seat in the Political Bureau along with three others, including Zahar, said via Twitter, “Our brother President Mahmoud Abbas contacted our brother Khaled Mishal congratulating him on his reelection as president of the Political Bureau of Hamas.”
An Uphill Battle
Mishal–Haniyeh’s victory over Abu Marzouk–Zahar was not the result of clear consensus within the Shura Council, but rather after a draining election campaign which saw intraparty maneuvering and rifts rise to the fore in an unprecedented manner.
The long road began with Mishal’s announcement at a Shura Council meeting in the Sudanese capital of Khartoum in January 2012 that he did not intend to run for a new term. Asharq Al-Awsat provided exclusive coverage of that meeting, reporting that most of the members broke out into tears after Mishal made his announcement.
His supporters left the door open for him to renege on his pledge, and stressed that a decision of this magnitude should not be left to a single individual. Mishal’s political opponents greeted the news with praise as if his retirement from politics was a foregone conclusion. Reliable sources told Asharq Al-Awsat that Mishal’s intention not to run resulted from his “disappointment” in the Hamas leadership in Gaza, headed by Mahmoud al-Zahar, and the continued criticism they leveled against him because of his reconciliation efforts which were epitomized in the Doha Agreement in February 2012.
Mishal was accused of monopolizing executive powers and criticized the remarks he made during the signing ceremony of the Cairo Agreement in 2011, when he said that he had no objections to giving negotiations another chance and supports a Palestinian state within the 1967 borders. Zahar was supported by Political Bureau Vice President Moussa Abu Marzouk who clearly opposed the Doha Agreement, despite attending the signing ceremony overseen by the Emir of Qatar, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa II.
The same sources told Asharq Al-Awsat that Haniyeh had coordinated with Mishal so that the former would be nominated to run for the presidency of the Political Bureau in order to weaken Abu Marzouk’s chances of winning in exchange for Haniyeh receiving the position of vice president. According to these sources, who asked to remain anonymous, Haniyeh’s nomination took Gaza votes away from Abu Marzouk. The latter fell out of the race which effectively made the run-off between the two remaining candidates, Mishal and Haniyeh, a formality, with the former winning by seven votes. By winning votes in favor of Mishal, Haniyeh was able to overcome Abu Marzouk and secure the vice presidency for himself, which Abu Marzouk had held since 1997.
Abu Marzouk was the first Political Bureau president, and held the position until his arrest in New York in 1996 when he was charged with belonging to a terrorist organization. Thereafter the presidency passed to Mishal with whom it has remained until present day. Contrary to the rumors that had been circulating earlier, Haniyeh will be Mishal’s sole vice president. Hamas spokesman Taher al-Nunu told Asharq Al-Awsat: “Haniyeh is the only vice president in the Political Bureau.” It was rumored that three vice presidents had been elected, including Abu Marzouk in addition to an unnamed politician from the West Bank.
One day before elections were held Mishal and Haniyeh led a delegation, that did not include Abu Marzouk or Zahar, that met with senior Egyptian leadership which included intelligence chief Raafat Shehata, as if the election results were already a foregone conclusion.
Notables leave, stars of the Shalit Deal enter
The fact that party notables such as Izzat Rishq, Sami Khater, and Zahar have left Hamas is evidence of the Political Bureau elections’ contentiousness. Meanwhile, Rohi Mushtahi and Yahya Sinwar, the two stars of the prisoner exchange deal that has come to be known as the Shalit Deal were both awarded with membership to the Political Bureau and both of them come from Hamas’s military wing. Salah Aruri, who lives abroad and has previously been named as a possible successor to Mishal, also gained membership status. Mohammad Nazzal regained his membership status which he had lost in the 2008 elections. As for the representatives from the West Bank, restrictions imposed by the Israeli authorities prevented them from participating, so they were appointed based on recommendations and their names were not disclosed for security reasons.
Internal rifts and foreign intervention
The Shura Council meeting and the Political Bureau elections were preceded by elections held in Hamas institutions which began in April 2012. The competition was particularly fierce in the Gaza Strip, which Haniyeh won for the first time. According to Palestinian sources, this year’s delayed selection of the Political Bureau was due to internal conflicts and interventions from foreign countries such as Qatar, Turkey, and, Egypt, which altogether strengthened Mishal’s candidacy.
According to a Hamas source, “Turkey and Qatar were in favor of Mishal remaining, and our brothers in Egypt wanted the Political Bureau president to be based in Egypt (Abu Marzouk has lived in Cairo since he left Syria about a year and a half ago). At a Shura Council meeting it was decided that Mishal’s provisional headquarters would remain in Qatar for the time being. The source added that Mishal works in an official office in Doha without any interference or obstacles, and that Qatar provides him with all he needs to fulfill his official duties.
In general the reactions to Mishal’s victory were positive. Dr. Faisal Abu Shahla, member of the Fatah Legislative Council said that his party welcomes the renewed vote of confidence for Khaled Mishal. Abu Shahla told the website Amad that in recent years Mishal has shown great eagerness to make national reconciliation a reality and end the current state of division. He said that he has worked hard to overcome the obstacles within Hamas so as to realize national unity and thus confront the overarching problem: the occupation. He said that his victory breathes new hope into ending the state of division and overcoming those who oppose reconciliation.
Dr. Ahmed Yousef, previously a political advisor to Haniyeh, told Asharq Al-Awsat: “I think that the election of brother Mishal confirms that everything he says about reconciliation, political inclusion, and opening up to the international community has support within Hamas. Mishal was the preferred choice for many (parties) in the region.” Mokhaimar Abusada, a professor of Political Science, said that Mishal’s reelection would strengthen Hamas’s position with Arab states and across the region. He told Maan News that Mishal’s reelection will enhance the chances of reconciliation’s success.
Hassan Abdu, a researcher who specializes in Middle East affairs, told Maan News that the Mishal’s election will bolster the moderate axis within Hamas which seeks to gain regional and international legitimacy. He pointed out that Mishal enjoys extensive relations, especially with Qatar and Turkey, and that he is likely to continue down the moderate path in seeking recognition. In terms of reconciliation, Abdu said that Mishal ended the division at the top of the political hierarchy between him and President Abbas, to the extent that they are in agreement on nearly every issue, however this has failed to translate to realities on the ground due to several factors including the presence of a more rigid current within Hamas that refuses to apply the Doha Agreement.