Menacing Egypt From Lebanon

The Strategic Interest

By Yossi Alpher

Published April 22, 2009, issue of May 01, 2009.
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In recent weeks, Egyptian media outlets have been accusing Hezbollah and Iran of planning attacks on targets in Egypt and fomenting the overthrow of the Mubarak regime. Cairo reportedly has smoking guns in the form of dozens of detainees, the intelligence these agents allegedly collected on Suez Canal targets and an illegal Sinai arms factory. Syria, Hamas, Qatar (and its radical media arm Al Jazeera), and an Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood leader have all been named in the Egyptian media as collaborators.

“This is a scheme to undermine [Egypt’s] stability in the interests of another state with which Hezbollah is allied — namely Iran — based on the pretext of jihad against the Israeli occupier,” Egypt’s semi-official Al Ahram newspaper summarized. “But the real aim is to impose Iranian hegemony on the Arab states.”

Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah (referred to in the Egyptian media as “monkey sheikh” and “Dracula”) shot back that the movement he heads was only “helping the hungry Palestinian brothers in Gaza.”

“I officially admit this crime,” he said. “This is an accusation through which we get closer to Allah.”

Nasrallah went so far as to condemn Egypt for closing down smuggling tunnels under the Sinai-Gaza border.

The most striking aspect of the face-off is the contrast between Egypt’s and Nasrallah’s ways of dealing with it. Egypt delayed publicizing Hezbollah’s transgressions on its soil for half a year. Since the Egyptian government did so, it has spoken to the public almost entirely through its state-influenced media. Nasrallah, in contrast, responded immediately to Egypt’s accusations, publicly and arrogantly, with his usual self-assurance and rhetorical skills.

Egypt evidently chose the current juncture to portray Iran’s designs on the moderate Sunni states in the most graphic terms possible in order to gain leverage over the Obama administration’s diplomatic overtures toward Tehran, which are a source of concern to Cairo. Egypt’s revelations follow recent anti-Iran steps by Morocco, Bahrain and Jordan. Everywhere you turn in the Middle East, Sunni Arabs are sounding the alarm over a rather nebulous Iranian plot to spread Shi’ism.

Nasrallah’s audacious performance from his hiding place in Lebanon and the Egyptian leadership’s apparent refusal to confront him openly have sent a strong signal regarding the current Middle East dynamic: The radicals are on the offense, and the moderates are playing defense. Judging by their response in the media they control to Obama’s outreach to Iran and Britain’s recent overtures to Hezbollah, the radicals appear convinced that in seeking contact with them, the United States and its allies have bowed to their will.

Another key aspect of this affair, one that gives Israel perverse satisfaction, is Egypt’s tacit admission — and Nasrallah’s open acknowledgement — that Hezbollah, representing Iran, is indeed actively involved in smuggling weapons into Gaza from Egypt. Until recently, Egyptian officials brushed off Israeli complaints that Egypt was not doing enough to stop the cross-border smuggling. Now Egypt will have a hard time simply dismissing Israeli concerns on this issue. (An additional development that may have encouraged Egypt to acknowledge its smuggling problem was embarrassment over recent media revelations about Israeli attacks on Iranian arms convoys that were crossing Sudan toward Egypt for delivery to Hamas in Gaza.)

In a larger sense, the revelations from Cairo constitute an admission on Egypt’s part that its strategy for dealing with Hamas in Gaza — make sure it remains Israel’s problem, not Egypt’s — has failed. Now Hezbollah and Iran are threatening Egypt’s own internal security and generating conflict just south of Egypt’s border in Sudan. Cairo’s recent failures to mediate a new Gaza cease-fire, an Israel-Hamas prisoner exchange and a Fatah-Hamas reconciliation have merely sharpened its frustration.

Meanwhile, in Lebanon, Nasrallah’s brazen acknowledgement that his agents were active on Egyptian soil is an intriguing electoral gamble. Lebanon goes to the polls on June 7; Hezbollah and its Christian allies hope to gain a majority. Nasrallah obviously believes that his radical interventionist politics will attract votes and that the weakness and disarray that characterize the Sunni Arab world will work in his favor.

In some ways, the Egypt-Hezbollah affair is an extension of Israel’s recent controversial wars against Hezbollah and Hamas. Egypt, Saudi Arabia and other moderate Sunni Arab countries understood those encounters as campaigns against Iran’s drive for regional hegemony and tacitly backed Israel. I recall having a drink last December in Europe with a well-connected Saudi intellectual whose parting admonition, apropos Israel’s anticipated war with Hamas and against the backdrop of its previous unsuccessful war with Hezbollah, was, “This time do it right!”

Well, we didn’t. The Egyptian media offensive against Iran and its proxies reflects an overwhelming sense of anger and frustration in Cairo and Riyadh (and also in Jerusalem), as well as a genuine concern — whether merited or not — that Obama’s new strategic approach could fail and leave us all worse off.

Yossi Alpher is former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University. He currently co-edits the family of Internet publications.

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