Al-Ahram Weekly Online   9 - 15 October 2008
Issue No. 917
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Courting Nasrallah

Cairo's overtures to Hizbullah are about shoring up Lebanon's now fragile Sunni community, writes Ammar Ali Hassan

Breaking with its customary reserve in dealing with Hizbullah, Cairo has invited the Lebanese resistance party for talks in Cairo. The move surprised many, as Hizbullah and Cairo don't exactly see eye to eye on many issues, from Israel to Iran to Lebanese domestic affairs. But there are a host of reasons, most pragmatic, that enticed Cairo to move in that direction.

In fact, there have been for sometime now signs of a change in relations between the biggest Arab country and the best-known political party in the region. Egypt may have lashed out at what it called "Hizbullah's adventure", a reference to the party's capturing of Israeli soldiers on 10 July 2006. But it didn't want to see Hizbullah defeated in the ensuing war, and the Egyptian people were thrilled by Hizbullah's outstanding performance in that war.

There is a regional dimension to the matter. Cairo has taken keen interest in the resumption of talks between Syria and Israel. Cairo must have also noticed that Washington is not in a mood to attack Iran and that its support to its Lebanese allies is waning. These are all matters that Egyptian officials would like to discuss with Hizbullah.

But Egypt's invitation to Hizbullah has alarmed Israel. The prospect that Hizbullah may offer to help Egypt disentangle the current mess in Gaza is not exactly to Israel's taste. Israeli analysts have described the invitation as a "slap" to outgoing Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and a victory for Hizbullah's leader Hassan Nasrallah. Egypt is giving Israel's archenemy a chance to pose as a regional player, they noted.

Some Israeli analysts believe that Egypt may give Hizbullah a chance to get involved in efforts to reconcile Syria and Saudi Arabia. Worse still, at least from Israel's point of view, is that Hizbullah may be allowed to act as a go- between in Egyptian-Iranian exchanges.

Regional agenda aside, Egyptian diplomats are likely to focus on the rift in Lebanon's domestic front. Egypt has been trying for some time to avert a civil war in Lebanon. As part of this effort, Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Abul-Gheit, who visited Lebanon 26 August, invited former Prime Minister Omar Karami, one of the country's most influential Sunni politicians, for talks in Cairo.

Maintaining working relations with all Lebanese parties has always been a mainstay of Egyptian diplomacy. So far, Egypt has managed to pose as a more or less faithful player in the Lebanese crisis. Although Cairo clearly favours the 14 March alliance, also known as the parliamentary majority, it has refrained so far from antagonising its opponents, including Hizbullah.

On the regional scene, Egypt is following a similar policy towards Iran. Although cautious about a perceived threat of creeping Iranian influence, Cairo has never supported a military strike against Iran.

In its policy, Egypt finds support from Saudi Arabia. Egyptians and Saudis do not want the Sunni Lebanese to lose its footing in Lebanon. But they don't want to encourage Shia-Sunni animosity either. Egyptian diplomats say that all Lebanese must abide by the Taif Agreement, credited for ending 14 years of civil war in Lebanon.

Egypt and Saudi Arabia have been talking to former Lebanese prime ministers, such as Salim Al-Hoss and Naguib Miquati, in an effort to shore up Sunni ranks in the next elections. An electoral defeat for the 14 March coalition, it is feared, may tilt the balance of power in Iran's favour -- something Egyptian and Saudi diplomats are trying to avert.

Furthermore, through engaging Hizbullah in talks, Egyptian diplomats hope to entice it to follow a more nationalist path in domestic policies. This is why, during his recent visit to Beirut, Foreign Minister Abul-Gheit told Mohamed Heneish, a key Hizbullah politician and labour minister, that he and any other Hizbullah officials are "welcome" in Cairo.

* The writer is director of the Middle East Studies and Research Centre, Cairo.

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