Hamas Reaches Out to Algeria
September 29, 2017
In early June, press reports emerged that, due to external pressure, Qatar had asked members of the Palestinian group Hamas to leave the country. The move by the Qataris occurred in parallel to Saudi Arabia´s decision, along with four other states, to cut off diplomatic ties with Qatar over its alleged support for terrorism.
In the following weeks, it was revealed that a Hamas spokesman, based in Algeria, Sami Abu Zuhri, had made a formal request in previous months for the group to open an office in the capital Algiers. Abu Zuhri had been effusive in praising Algeria for its suitability as a base for Hamas. In an Algerian press forum, he noted that, “the land of the martyrs is the first hope for the support of the resistance and the Palestinian people”. In light of the request, the authorities agreed to review the request, but since mid-July, the group have yet to receive an official response. Apart from Algeria Hamas has sought to split its leadership between a number of countries such as Turkey, Malaysia and Lebanon. This is in a big to prevent the organisation from concentrating itself in one place.
For those Hamas officials who have visited Algeria in the past, at least in an official capacity, they have noted the warm reception with which the authorities have welcomed them. According to Osama Hamdan, a Hamas foreign affairs spokesman, “Hamas has good relations with all Algerian political parties, especially the ruling National Liberation Front”. He also acknowledged Algeria´s efforts to contribute to aid convoys destined for the Gaza Strip.
While there is widespread popular support for Palestinian resistance groups within Algeria, the government is likely to be hesitant in openly endorsing Hamas´s right to open an official office. This is in part due to Hamas’ poor international reputation, as a blacklisted terrorist organisation, but also because Algeria´s military and government are cautious about the presence of political Islam.
At the beginning of the 1990s, while Algeria was undergoing its own experiment in democracy, an Islamist political party appeared on the scene, which took inspiration from the Palestinian group. Hamas, or the Movement for an Islamic Society, later the Movement of Society for Peace, was founded by Sheikh Mahfoudh Nahnah and was a rival to other Islamist parties, most notably the Front Islamique du Salut (FIS). While it took inspiration for the name from the Palestinian group in the West Bank and Gaza, it did not possess formal ties and took a more moderate line. As a party, it chose to drop the name Hamas to HMS, as a means to distance itself from the militant group.
Since becoming president in 1999, Abdelaziz Bouteflika has never made overtures to normalise relations with Israel, and Algeria has lent both vocal and practical support for the Palestinian cause. In 2009, in light of a UN Security Council Resolution calling for a ceasefire between the Israelis and Palestinians, Algerian foreign minister Mourad Medelci refused to consider Hamas as a “terrorist movement”. However, years before in 2000 Hamas was left outraged, when President Bouteflika chose to shake hands with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak during the funeral for Morocco´s King Hassan.
What is at stake?
If Algeria allows Hamas to open an official office in the country, it will need to take into consideration the opinions of other important Arab states. When asked about whether Saudi Arabia, considers Hamas to be a terrorist group, the Kingdom´s ambassador to Algeria Sami Bin Abdullah Salih, gave an unequivocal response, saying, “Of course… It certainly is, if it seeks to create and cause problems.” Moreover, the very presence of Hamas in Algeria, will no doubt arouse considerable criticism among key international partners such as the United States, who have forged a strong counter-terrorism alliance. In June US Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley told the Security Council that states who support Hamas should face consequences. Given that two of the individualswho were asked to leave Qatar include Saleh al-Arouri, who is responsible for overseeing West Bank terror cells and Musa Dudin who established a cell to plan attacks in the West Bank, Algeria will have to carefully consider who they allow in.
For almost twenty years, Hamas officials have found it difficult to establish permanent external bases. Its leaders were expelled from Jordan in 1999 and in 2012, the group´s political leadership was forced to decamp from Syria, as result of the country´s civil war. By allowing Hamas the right to set up a permanent bureau, it means Algeria will be subject to greater scrutiny by key Arab allies and regional groups. Given the country´s fragile leadership, inviting a group such as Hamas to settle, might be too great a gamble.