The timing of Egypt’s April 8 announcement of its arrest of 24 men—allegedly linked to Hezbollah—on Egyptian soil in November and December 2008 upped the ante in the already tense relationship between Cairo and the Lebanese Islamist resistance movement and, by extension, Hezbollah’s supporter, Iran (al-Jazeera [Doha], April 11; al-Arabiya [Dubai], April 11). Cairo’s allegations regarding the suspects and their motives, however, have been fraught with inconsistencies that say more about the factors shaping the trajectory of contemporary geopolitics in the Middle East than any alleged conspiracy.
A Web of Conspiracy
The nature and targets of Cairo’s allegations of a Hezbollah-led plot in Egypt shed light on the underlying issues at play. Egyptian authorities initially accused the suspects, which included Egyptians, Lebanese, and Arab citizens of Israel, of funneling funds to Hamas in the Gaza Strip from Egyptian territory (al-Jazeera, April 10). Cairo then shifted its account and claimed that the 24 suspects were part of a 49-member Hezbollah cell that was preparing to execute attacks against Egyptian targets and Israeli tourists in Egypt. The suspects were also accused of engineering a coup at the behest of Iran to overthrow the government of Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak and spreading Hezbollah’s brand of Shia Islam in Egypt (al-Hayat [London], April 17; al-Arabiya, April 16).
The suspects are also reported to have attempted to recruit Egyptians and others in the country to monitor shipping traffic traversing the Suez Canal and in other locations near the Sinai Peninsula (al-Jazeera, April 10). The alleged cell was also said to have mapped out the terrain and demographics of a number of Egyptian towns and villages in Sinai, situated adjacent to Israel and Gaza. Egyptian sources stated that Hezbollah aimed to gauge the utility of these towns and villages for infiltrating Gaza and Israel proper to support the Palestinian resistance, groups such as Hamas in Gaza and possibly members of Israel’s Arab minority (al-Jazeera, April 9). Members of the alleged cell are also accused of planning to smuggle arms and ammunition by ship from Yemen, Somalia, and Sudan into Sinai, presumably to sustain their operations in Egypt and also to bolster the Palestinian resistance (al-Jazeera, April 13). Subsequent reports citing official sources in Cairo later claimed that the suspects intended to mount suicide attacks against unspecified targets in Tel Aviv (Press TV [Tehran], April 16). Egyptian security officials also reported that they uncovered explosive materials, including suicide belts, during the arrests of the suspects (al-Jazeera, April 13). The remaining 25 members of the alleged cell, which according to Egyptian officials include an unspecified number of Sudanese, remain at large (Daily Star [Cairo], April 13).
In addition to implicating Hezbollah and Iran in a web of conspiracy, official Egyptian media sources named Syria, Hamas, Qatar and its al-Jazeera satellite network, and Egypt’s banned Ikhwan al-Muslimeen (Muslim Brotherhood), as being party to a plot against Egypt (al-Jazeera, April 18). Egypt’s citing of Damascus stems from Syria’s alliance with Iran and Hezbollah. Similarly, Cairo sees Hamas as a threat due to the example it sets for Egypt’s embattled Islamist opposition, as well as its alliances with Syria and Iran. Cairo is also threatened by Qatar’s rise as a diplomatic heavyweight in the Gulf, where it has emerged as a new voice for Arab causes (in spite of its close strategic relationship with Washington) and an alternative to the pro-U.S. Egyptian- and Saudi-led consensus in the region, a role bolstered by its natural gas and oil riches and ownership of al-Jazeera. Qatar and Syria were first to call for an emergency meeting of Arab League members and a ceasefire during Israel’s invasion of Gaza from December 2008-January 2009. Qatar also welcomed exiled leaders of Hamas and other Palestinian militant groups to Doha to meet with Arab League members and urged all Arab countries to immediately cut ties and negotiations with Israel in a show of solidarity with the Palestinians. In contrast, Egypt and Saudi Arabia boycotted the event. Qatar’s assertiveness during the crisis humiliated Egypt (and Saudi Arabia). Furthermore, Egypt and other autocratic regimes in the Middle East consider al-Jazeera a threat because it provides opposition forces a venue to voice their opinions. The network’s allotment of airtime to critics of Egypt’s stance during the Gaza conflict also did not sit well in Cairo.
Egypt’s claim that the Ikhwan, the moderate, democratic reform-minded Islamist movement that represents the main opposition to Mubarak’s rule, was active in the alleged scheme suggests an effort on the part of Cairo to tarnish the group’s reputation domestically and internationally (al-Jazeera, April 18). The Ikhwan denied any involvement with or knowledge of the alleged cell, although they did support any attempts to help the besieged Palestinians in Gaza (al-Jazeera, April 11). At the same time, the Ikhwan highlighted the importance of defending Egyptian national security and criticized attempts by foreigners to violate the country’s sovereignty on any grounds (al-Ahram Weekly [Cairo], April 23-29).
Hezbollah’s Threat to Egypt
Cairo’s official portrayal of Hezbollah’s threat to Egypt obscures the true nature of the Hezbollah threat. Egypt accuses Hezbollah of, among other things, religious fanaticism, terrorism and, most importantly, serving as a spearhead of Iranian expansionism. The true threat Hezbollah poses to Egypt and, for that matter, other U.S.-backed autocracies in the Middle East, however, is its ability to inspire popular dissent and resistance. Hezbollah’s impressive performance against Israel in combat during the years of the Israeli occupation of southern Lebanon and the Summer 2006 war are cases in point. Popular displays of solidarity with Hezbollah across Arab cities such as Cairo and Amman with predominantly Sunni populations during the July 2006 war, for instance, are also indicative of Hezbollah’s popularity. Significantly, Sunni Islamist opposition movements such as the Ikhwan in Egypt were among Hezbollah’s most vocal supporters during the July 2006 war (see Terrorism Focus, August 8, 2006). Hezbollah’s Shi’a Islamist pedigree is irrelevant in this context. In fact, Hezbollah secretary general Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah is widely regarded as a hero in the Arab and greater Muslim world. Many Arabs see Iran in a favorable light due to Tehran’s vocal opposition to the United States and Israel, not to mention the pro-U.S. regimes in the Middle East. In spite of repeated warnings out of Cairo and other U.S.-friendly Arab capitals of the rise of an aggressive Iran that is bent on regional domination, the Arab public continues to identify the United States and Israel as posing the greatest threats by large margins.  As a result, Egypt, along with U.S.-backed autocracies such as Jordan and Saudi Arabia that comprise the core of the so-called “moderate regimes,” has been vocal in playing up the specter of what it sees as an Iranian-led conspiracy to dominate Egypt and the Middle East. It is against this background that Hezbollah plays an integral role in the threat of a “Shi’a Crescent” first defined by Jordan’s King Abdullah II in December 2004 to describe Iran’s growing influence from Iraq to the Levant.
Hostilities between Egypt and Hezbollah have reached a fever pitch since Hezbollah accused Egypt of colluding with Israel’s invasion of Gaza (al-Manar [Beirut], April 10). During Israel’s invasion of Lebanon in July 2006, Hezbollah also accused Egypt, along with Jordan and Saudi Arabia, of tacitly supporting Israel (see Terrorism Focus, August 8, 2006). While largely ignored in the U.S. and Western press, the regional fallout from Israel’s invasion of Gaza and the escalating human cost on the Palestinians continues to weigh heavily on Egypt and the wider Middle East. For its part, Cairo remains on the defensive domestically and in the wider Arab arena for the role it played in the latest war in Gaza and for its support of the Israeli blockade against the Palestinians that was instituted after Hamas emerged victorious in the January 2006 Palestinian parliamentary elections (al-Jazeera, April 13).
Hezbollah’s political, information, and social service wings operate relatively transparently in the mainstream of Lebanese politics and society. In contrast, the group’s military and intelligence wings are shrouded behind a cloak of secrecy that rivals—if not exceeds—the behavior of state actors. This shroud of secrecy extends to all matters related to Hezbollah’s membership. But in a move atypical of the ultra secretive organization, Nasrallah acknowledged in a lengthy response to Cairo that one of the men in Egyptian custody, Sami Chehab, was in fact a member of Hezbollah operating in Egypt. Nasrallah admitted that Chehab was providing logistical assistance to the Palestinians along the Egyptian-Gaza border: “Our brother Sami, is a member of Hezbollah, we do not deny this…” (al-Manar, April 10). Egyptian authorities detained Chehab, a Lebanese citizen, in Egypt on November 19, 2008 (Press TV, May 1).
Nasrallah, however, vehemently denied Cairo’s allegations that Hezbollah intended to mount attacks against Egypt or foreign targets on Egyptian soil. He also rejected the charges that Hezbollah was planning to orchestrate a coup at the behest of Iran against the Mubarak regime or to cause any problems for the Egyptian people. Regarding Cairo’s allegations, he stated, “The aim here is to agitate the Egyptian people and to defame Hezbollah's pure and bright image. This aims to only please the Americans and Israelis, for the Egyptian regime has failed by all means” (al-Manar, April 10). Nasrallah also admitted that Hezbollah was actively supporting the Palestinians in Gaza and that Hezbollah’s sole concern was countering Israeli threats to Lebanon (al-Manar, April 9; April 10).
In a reflection of Nasrallah’s confidence in light of the serious allegations Egypt leveled against his organization, he also mentioned: “If aiding the Palestinians is a crime, then I am proud of it" and that “the Egyptian regime should be charged and condemned for besieging Gaza" (al-Manar, April 10). Nasrallah’s bold response was intended for ordinary Egyptians, as well as a wider Arab and Muslim public—Sunni and Shi’a alike—the vast majority of whom deeply resent Egypt’s stance on Gaza and the larger Palestinian question. Moreover, Nasrallah makes it apparent that Cairo’s attempt to accuse Hezbollah of plotting terrorist attacks against Egypt represents a sign of desperation on the part of Egypt to divert attention away from its unpopular stance regarding Gaza and the Palestinians.
The Irony of the Iranian Threat
In an ironic twist, adherents of the most extreme strains of radical Sunni Islam (namely violent Salafi militants who subscribe to al-Qaeda’s brand of radicalism) along with U.S.-backed autocracies like Egypt, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia, as well as the United States and Israel all identify Iran as a serious threat. Naturally, each of these unlikely bedfellows defines the perceived threat from Iran differently. For reasons discussed earlier, pro-U.S. authoritarian regimes, themselves the original targets of radical Islamist ire long before radical Islamists turned their sites on the United States, also identify Iran as a threat in political, ideological, and military terms. The United States and Israel also harbor deep concerns about Iran stemming from Tehran’s nuclear aspirations to the extent of Iranian influence in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Radical Salafi extremists despise the revolutionary brand of Shi’a Islam propagated by Tehran, and see Shi’a believers overall as heretics and apostates. Given its Shi’a Islamist credentials and ties to Iran, Salafi extremists view Hezbollah’s presence and influence in Lebanon and the wider region in an adversarial, sectarian context. The spread of Iranian influence and the marked rise of Shi’a political power in Iraq since the fall of Baghdad also helped feed Salafi conspiracy theories that the United States, Iran and Hezbollah are secretly colluding to undermine Sunni Islam across the globe. Yet al-Qaeda’s brand of radicalism has never been able to gain a widespread following; not even close, in fact, to the popular following and respect enjoyed by Iranian-sponsored groups such as Hezbollah across the region. To undermine their enemies, Iran and Hezbollah will continue to reach out to Arab and Muslim publics through a non-sectarian resistance narrative that resonates deeply with those concerned with the plight of the Palestinians, domestic political opposition in the Middle East, social justice, and related themes.
In spite of the media hype, the apparent defeat of the Hezbollah-led March 8 Alliance in Lebanon’s June 7 parliamentary elections will do little to stymie Hezbollah’s influence in Lebanese politics and beyond. Nevertheless, Hezbollah’s defeat at the polls will inevitably be described in Cairo—as well as in Riyadh, Amman, Washington, and Tel Aviv—as a major setback for Iran. On the contrary, Hezbollah’s loss at the polls represents a blessing in disguise for the organization; Hezbollah is able to preserve its role as a symbol of resistance, a role strengthened by its position as a powerful opposition force in Lebanese politics, without assuming the myriad of burdens that come with being the dominant political power in Beirut.
 See University of Maryland (w/ Zogby International), “2009 Annual Arab Public Opinion Survey,” May 2009, www.brookings.edu/events/2009/~/media/Files/events/2009/0519_arab_opinion/2009_arab_public_opinion_poll.pdf.
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