The Magazine

The Pharaoh Strikes Back

Egypt vs. Hezbollah.

May 11, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 32 • By DAVID SCHENKER
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Anyone who has watched an Arab summit knows that the Middle East is racked with divisions. The highlight reel from the March 2009 Doha summit leads with a lengthy ad hominem attack by Libya's leader Muammar Qaddafi against Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah, so severe that the Qatari hosts cut the audio feed midstream.

But the fissures run much deeper than personal animosity. The Arab world is embroiled in a cold war, pitting Iranian allies Syria, Qatar, Hezbollah, and Hamas against "moderate" pro-West states like Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Jordan. The battle-between competing regional visions of moqawama (resistance) and development and coexistence-has been joined in Lebanon, Palestine, and Iraq.

Washington has a clear interest in seeing its allies prevail in this contest and reversing the regional trend toward moqawama being driven by Iran. Slowing Tehran's momentum has proven difficult, however, at least in part because Washington's leading Arab ally, Egypt, has seen its regional influence decline. Tehran has capitalized on Cairo's diminished leadership role, asserting itself in Arab politics. The virtual absence of Egypt as a bulwark against Tehran's militancy has complicated Washington's efforts to promote moderation and check Iran's march toward a nuclear weapon.

But recent developments suggest that Egypt may finally be taking steps to reestablish itself as a counterweight to a resurgent Tehran. On April 8, Egyptian authorities announced the arrest last November of dozens of Hezbollah operatives in the Sinai. The announcement was accompanied by unprecedented Egyptian condemnations of the Iranian-Syrian backed organization and its popular leader, Hassan Nasrallah.

The arrest and subsequent war of words suggest an effort may be underway by moderate Arab states to roll back the increasingly pernicious Persian influence in the Levant.

According to Egyptian sources, the 49-strong Hezbollah cell rounded up in November-which included 13 Lebanese nationals and 2 Syrians-was plotting to attack Israeli tourists at Sinai beach resorts. The agents had been observed, Egyptian officials said, conducting pre-operational planning. Prosecutors also accused these operatives of setting up a surveillance network to monitor shipping traffic in the Suez Canal.

If attacks against Israelis or the canal had come to fruition, there is little doubt they would have done serious damage to Egypt, already suffering the consequences of the global economic downturn. Canal traffic-Egypt's third largest source of revenue-is already down 25 percent this year. And tourism, Egypt's leading industry, is highly dependent on security. Following the 1997 massacre of 58 foreign tourists in Luxor perpetrated by the Islamic Jihad, Egypt tourism fell off an estimated 50 percent, a calamity for the $3.7 billion industry.

Even before the arrests were announced, Cairo had a bone to pick with Hezbollah. During Israeli operations in Gaza this past January, despite pressures, Egypt maintained the Western-advocated policy of isolating Hamas, refusing to open the Rafah border and provide relief for the besieged Palestinian Islamists. Egypt's position was sharply denounced by Nasrallah. In a speech on December 28, 2008, he appealed to Egyptians to challenge their government, and "open the Rafah border crossing with your own bodies." Egyptian foreign minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit described the statement as a "declaration of war."

When the arrests were made public in early April, Nasrallah gave a televised speech on Hezbollah's Al Manar channel, taking the unusual step of claiming responsibility for the operatives. Instead of apologizing for the embarrassing incident, however, Nasrallah was unrepentant, even combative. Contrary to Egyptian claims, he said the cell was instead smuggling arms and explosives to Hamas in Gaza and had no intention of carrying out attacks on Egyptian soil. "If aiding the Palestinians is a crime," he added, "I am proud of it."

The response to Nasrallah's speech in the Egyptian government-controlled media was swift and harsh. On April 12, the leading government daily, Al Gomhuria, attacked Hezbollah as an agent of Iran that undermined Lebanese sovereignty, was responsible for the deaths of hundreds of Lebanese in 2006 after it provoked a war with Israel, and killed dozens of innocents during its May 2008 invasion of Beirut.