Adnan Abu Amer
Middle East Monitor / April 15, 2021
After being absent from Hamas’s leadership during the 2017-2021 term, the movement announced electing Khaled Meshaal, the former head of its political bureau, to lead the Palestinian Islamist group’s office in the diaspora in the next 2021-2025 term. This makes Meshaal the second most powerful man in the movement, marking the start of his gradual reintegration into leadership once again.
The Palestinians recall that Meshaal voluntarily and willingly stepped down from the movement’s leadership at the climax of his career when he had an influential network of local, regional and international relations. In addition, he enjoyed the support of public opinion composed of Hamas’s members and allies, who asked him to remain in the position that he left in May 2017.
I met Meshaal during several political and press occasions, both in Damascus and Doha, and when he visited the Gaza Strip. I saw in him an outstanding, charismatic leader with the qualities of a visionary and a far-sighted leader. As I did with many others during key political phases, I agreed and disagreed with him, but he always maintained an open-minded attitude with a tolerance of harsh criticism.
While stepping down from the leadership of Hamas, Meshaal will always be remembered for the historical precedent he achieved at the level of Palestinian political movements. He handed over the leadership of Hamas to his elected successor Ismail Haniyeh, while still physically fit, with an excellent memory and at the peak of his political career. Meshaal stepped down in spite of internal and external calls demanding him to remain in office and in light of the crucial moments that Hamas particularly, and the Palestinian cause in general, are enduring.
I sensed in Meshaal, at the time, a strong desire to take a warrior’s rest from the leadership of Hamas, questioning whether to abide by internal regulations that prohibit him from running again after nearly twenty years of leading the movement, or to pump new blood into the movement command that Meshaal often describes as “prolific”. Hence, he frequently said that he wanted to hear the word “former” attached to the next president of the Hamas political bureau.
This portrait of Meshaal’s personality is perhaps an essential introduction to any attempt to anticipate the future of Hamas after Meshaal is elected to lead its office in the diaspora. Internal and external challenges require a great sense of wisdom, collective decision-making and an extraordinary ability to overcome the threats surrounding the movement, both at home and abroad.
After stepping down from Hamas leadership, Meshaal did not rest, stay at home or preoccupy himself with family life and personal affairs. Instead, he remained close to the decision-making circles in the movement. Thus, Meshaal’s distinguished relationship with Haniyeh, his elected successor, was perhaps one of the key factors that helped him stay close to the movement’s centre of power.
In this regard, we can affirm that Haniyeh has a strong sense of appreciation for Meshaal, as their relationship goes back in time. It may not be a secret that Meshaal wanted Haniyeh to remain president of the political bureau for the 2021-2025 mandate due to the common principles they share and the harmony they both exhibited in managing the affairs of the movement during the last term.
Moreover, Meshaal, who lives in Qatar and moves between many capitals, has a network of close relations within Hamas in the Palestinian territories – a natural expectation from the leader of a movement that enjoys a wide geographical presence inside and outside Palestine. The fact that Meshaal has close relations with Hamas cadres and leaders reflects a leadership quality that sufficiently granted him the ability to stay informed on the activities of Hamas in Palestine, while being thousands of kilometres away. This kept him close to the decision-making mechanisms and provided him with an excellent opportunity to exert influence on some important events.
It is noteworthy that Meshaal may exclusively have access to important opportunities, compared to Hamas’s other leaders, given the fact that those around him have admired his captivating personality. He is human, which means that he may be right or wrong at times, but whoever has the chance to get closer to him, whether at a personal level or within movement leadership, can see the qualities and characteristics that draw Hamas towards him. Even after he stepped down from his previous position, his advice and counsel have still been sought by the movement to benefit from his experience as a leader.
Perhaps working side by side with Haniyeh may help Meshaal in his new leadership mission. They are not carbon copies; however, the harmony between them may save a lot of effort and time spent discussing basic issues related to Hamas’s internal affairs. It is well known that Meshaal and Haniyeh have agreed on many issues in previous years. Although their positions are not identical, they do share a mutual understanding that could pave the way for Haniyeh to achieve success during the next stage.
Meshaal, Haniyeh’s friend, has officially rejoined the leadership of Hamas, which will provide both leaders with more regional and international channels of communication to restore the movement’s external relations. This demarche will probably boost optimism about their ability to lead Hamas in this challenging phase.
Perhaps the phone call Haniyeh made as soon as Meshaal was re-elected is a clear indication that he was relieved by this development, which will perhaps be marked by the smooth and easy rotation of leadership from one leader to another.
Despite his resignation from the leadership of Hamas and his later return, Meshaal managed to double his political activities after leaving his position, indicating at the time a possible comeback, regardless of internal balances and alliances. Regionally, the matter requires him to develop the movement’s alliances and diversify its financial and military resources.
The consensus over Meshaal and his competence to be a Hamas leader again is a matter to be reckoned with. However, the matter depends on several considerations: the first is whether he wishes to return or not; the second is the probable inclination within the movement towards carrying on with the current leadership for a new term, especially with the constant presence of an almost perfect relation between Meshaal and Haniyeh based on permanent consultation; and lastly, the legitimate aspirations of other leaders to compete for the leadership of Hamas.
Finally, while Hamas announces Meshaal’s smooth and calm return to the leadership in its new mandate, and within this unique electoral experience, the movement inks a new page in its history and signals the start of a novice phase in Meshaal’s leadership career. We will see Meshaal and Hamas advancing together, voicing firm commitment to the establishment’s organised structures and complying with its electoral regulations and explanatory texts.
Adnan Abu Amer is the head of the Political Science Department at the University of the Ummah in Gaza