The Magazine

The Pharaoh Strikes Back

Egypt vs. Hezbollah.

May 11, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 32 • By DAVID SCHENKER
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Al Gomhuria was particularly pointed in its criticism of Nasrallah, calling the Hezbollah leader a "Monkey Sheikh," and "the son of garbage," who is "not the leader of the resistance" but the head of a "terrorist organization" that is "an ideological ally of al Qaeda." The editor of the government-affiliated Rose al Yousef magazine added that Lebanon should "surrender [Nasrallah] as a war criminal."

The arrests and the harsh public critiques were an Egyptian warning shot across the bow of Hezbollah's patron Iran. Egyptian-Iranian relations have been tense since the 1978 Camp David Accords. In the aftermath of the Iranian revolution, to Tehran's consternation, Egypt provided sanctuary to the deposed shah; for decades in Tehran, to the annoyance of Cairo, there has been a giant mural of, and a street named after, Khalid Islambouli, the assassin of former Egyptian president Anwar Sadat. More recently, during the January 2009 Israeli military campaign in Gaza, an organization affiliated with the Iranian Revolutionary Guards put a $1.5 million bounty on the head of President Mubarak, which was posted on the website of the Iranian government's Fars news agency.

For Egypt, though, the bad blood is more about the present than the past. Cairo is primarily concerned about Tehran's progress in acquiring a nuclear weapon. There are also indications-such as the accusation against the arrested cell members-that Egypt is troubled about Iranian attempts to "spread Shiism" to the Nile Valley.

These concerns seem to have been behind an Egyptian initiative in late 2007 and early 2008 to improve bilateral relations with Tehran. In December 2007, Iranian National Security Council head Ali Larijani visited Cairo. Subsequently Mubarak called his Iranian counterpart, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. But the short-lived attempt at rapprochement failed, and last month's arrests rekindled the animosity.

In the aftermath of the round-up, Egyptian security sources leaked to the press that it was highly likely that Iran "has connections" to the arrested cell. Meanwhile, senior Hezbollah officials have accused Cairo of "fabricating" the story, and "blowing the affair out of proportion."

Facing increased economic pressure and an impending period of political transition, it is understandable that Mubarak has described the presence of Hezbollah on its territory as an Iranian gambit to "threaten Egypt's national security and undermine its stability." During a speech to military officers in late April, Mubarak vowed to Iran that Egypt would "uncover all of your plots and respond to your ploys," adding, with a flourish, "beware the wrath of Egypt."

There is little doubt that the arrests enhance Egypt's security. But the round-up of the Hezbollah cell also benefits Egypt with Washington and strengthens Cairo's position in the region. Cairo is looking to improve relations with Washington, and it seems likely that the arrests will earn Egypt credit with the Obama White House.

At the same time, the move against Hezbollah may have been calculated to influence the electorate in Lebanon, where the pro-Western government faces a tight race against the Iranian-backed Hezbollah-led opposition in the June 7 elections. Indeed, Iranian foreign minister Manouchehr Mottaki suggested that the government of Egypt had fabricated charges against Hezbollah cells expressly for this purpose.

One additional but perhaps unintended benefit for the Mubarak regime appears to have been the ill-advised response of the Islamist opposition to the arrests. The Muslim Brotherhood-which came out in support of Hezbollah's efforts to aid Hamas in Gaza despite the violation of Egyptian territorial sovereignty-seems to have misjudged popular sentiment.

The incarceration of Hezbollah operatives by Egypt comes at a critical time, just as the Obama administration is embarking on a controversial policy of diplomatic engagement with Tehran. In the Middle East, Washington's Arab allies are watching closely, concerned that the new president may choose accommodation over confrontation with Tehran. Although it would constitute an unlikely change in U.S. policy, the prospect that Washington may be prepared to live with a nuclear Iran is not a development that Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and other moderate Arab states would welcome, to say the least.

Egypt's going public against Hezbollah was a sign that Cairo at least has drawn a red line for Iran. With a little luck, should Egypt persist in its willingness to confront Tehran, it could encourage Washington's other regional allies to step up, facilitating international efforts to prevent Iran from attaining a nuclear weapon.