Al-Ahram Weekly Online   16 - 22 April 2009
Issue No. 943
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

On the border and beyond

Dina Ezzat tries to make sense out of the recent Egypt-Hizbullah tug-of-war

Israel puts its army on high alert along the borders with Egypt. Egypt does the same. An Egyptian guard is killed on the borders between Egypt and Israel. An Israeli tourist is stabbed in a Red Sea resort. Egypt chases Lebanese and Palestinian individuals in Sinai, for alleged illicit connections with Hizbullah.

Meanwhile, the political and intelligence confrontation between Cairo and Hizbullah seems set to ascend with Egypt determined that Hizbullah is trying to tamper with Egyptian national security while Hizbullah is overt in its accusations against Egypt for targeting all anti-Israel resistance groups. For its part, the Lebanese government -- all but a declared opponent of Hizbullah -- seems to be wanting to side with Egypt but is clearly aware of the consequences of such a decision on fragile civil stability as Lebanon counts down to legislative elections this summer.

"The situation is worrying; that is for sure. But really Egypt is not to blame," said a state official who asked for his name to be withheld. Egypt, he said, "cannot turn a blind eye to the fact that Hizbullah decided to overlook the Egyptian state and use Egyptian territories to facilitate the shipment of arms to Hamas in Gaza. And this is not just about the fact that Egypt is opposed to the armament of Hamas but indeed about the fact that the state cannot allow its territories to be used for arms smuggling -- no matter the cause."

Egypt and Hizbullah have spent this week arguing over the arrest of a Lebanese citizen and a few Egyptians for alleged connection with Hizbullah that supposedly aimed to hit Israeli and Egyptian targets in Egypt. Egyptian officials, including Foreign Minister Ahmed Abul-Gheit, publicly accused Hizbullah of deliberately attempting to incite instability in the country, to serve "Iranian" objectives of undermining Egypt's "role". Hizbullah leader Hassan Nasrallah in a televised speech over the weekend denied these allegations. He insisted that his sole objective was to provide Hamas in Gaza with arms required for resistance.

Egypt has made no secret of its growing intolerance with arms smuggling to Hamas in Gaza. Over the past year, Egypt has been more active in intercepting smuggling. The country has acquired new equipment to detect tunnels constructed between its territories and Gaza to smuggle weapons, as well as alimentary items and medicines. It has also welcomed international -- especially US -- credit for its stepped up efforts.

This Egyptian scheme is in part designed to meet Israel-instigated US pressure for a firmer anti-weapons smuggling mechanism. But it is also meant to send a message to Hamas, in control of Gaza, for what Cairo qualifies as its "unjustified reluctance to agree to an Egyptian proposal for reconciliation with Fatah and a prisoner swap deal with Israel". Egypt has been trying for close to two years to achieve both, but has been defied by Hamas's positions.

Convinced that Hamas's positions are influenced -- if not outright instructed -- by Iran, the subject of endless criticism from top Egyptian diplomats, Egypt was not willing to turn a blind eye to any arms smuggling for Hamas. "Especially not when this smuggling is attempted from Sinai and with Israel spotting the attempt and threatening to act against it," commented the Egyptian official on condition of anonymity.

Israeli cabinet minister Israel Katz, a close ally of Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, has publicly said that Israel considers all attempts of Hizbullah to smuggle arms into Gaza from Sinai as hostile acts that Israel would act to abort. What Katz threatened, Israel said formally through diplomatic channels: if Egypt does not act, then Israel will consider its choices.

For Egypt the situation was clear. Israel might "in a moment of deliberate madness" choose to "operate" against the "Hizbullah targets in Sinai". The worst concern was that this operation would have a military rather than an intelligence nature. For Egypt it is impossible to sit and wait for Israel to hit Sinai and then be faced with a political dilemma by which it would have either to react to Israeli "aggression" or overlook it -- both being tough choices. Moreover, it would have to countenance that a Lebanese citizen with association to Hizbullah is targeted on its territories by Israel.

"None of these scenarios were remotely tolerable. Out of the question," commented the same official. He added, "it is equally out of the question for us to allow Hizbullah to use our territories as it wishes to serve a political agenda that is not in our interest."

Egypt does not find it in its interest to support militant resistance -- it's as simple as that. Like Saudi Arabia, Jordan and the majority of Arab countries, Egypt is convinced that military resistance will not defy Israel. "It rather solidifies Israel, because it gives its government the endless pretext to claim to the West that it is under continuous existential threats and as such gets away with all its political intransigence and military deals," commented an Egyptian diplomat.

Moreover, Egypt believes that the call for resistance is actually Iranian. Iran, Egyptian officials complain, is using militant resistance movements in the Arab world, especially Hizbullah and Hamas, to serve an Iranian agenda of promoting regional instability with the objective of strengthening Tehran's position in any potential negotiations with Washington over the fate of the Iranian nuclear programme.

Worse, Egyptian officials seem convinced that Iran is out to get Egypt. Iran, they say, is planning to expand its influence across the Arab world and will not be able to do this unless Egypt is marginalised. The many Iranian attempts to argue the opposite through diplomatic channels were not sufficiently supported, officials in Cairo argue, with substance from Tehran. Especially offending to Cairo was a series of anti-Egyptian demonstrations that directly targeted the Egyptian head of state during the Israeli war on Gaza.

Adding insult to injury was the criticism that Iran, Hizbullah and some Arab capitals directed against Egypt for declining to unilaterally operate the Rafah crossing that links Egyptian territories to Gaza. "In Egyptian culture -- and this is not a secret -- if criticism targets the president then the red line was crossed, and those who cross it have to put up with the rage that results," said one government official on condition of anonymity.

As such, Egyptian tolerance towards Hizbullah has all but expired. Egyptian frustration was conveyed to Hizbullah but also to the Lebanese government during a recent call between President Hosni Mubarak and Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Al-Siniora.

Egyptian "national security is a red line", said Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif. And "Egypt's hands will not be tied" when it comes to taking any "steps to protect this national security", Anas El-Fiqi, minister of information, said. "We made it clear to Hizbullah that if they don't back off we will take action against them," said one state official.

Cairo is making no secret of its hostility towards Hizbullah. However, as Egyptian officials argue, Egypt is aware not to go too far at a time when Israel is under a right-wing government that is unlikely to move towards peace but rather towards war. Cairo is also aware of the consequences of any further confrontation with Hizbullah on the interests of its allies in Lebanon, all on the eve of legislative elections there.

And with the increasing likelihood of direct US-Iranian talks, Egypt is not interested in confronting Iran directly or through its assumed allies. So that such a collision is avoided, Egypt says it expects that all known "red lines" will be observed, on all sides.

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