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

Stepping carefully

Arab diplomacy is working overtime to prevent the Egypt-Hizbullah confrontation from deepening, Dina Ezzat reports

In Cairo, Beirut, Damascus and Gaza, diplomats, officials, Hamas members and Hizbullah figures seem unclear about how far Egypt and Hizbullah will go in their most recent confrontation. On both sides there is clear awareness that despite the profound hostilities -- both personal and political -- between the two, showdown comes at a price.

Egypt takes issue with the call to resistance Hizbullah champions in the face of negotiations Egypt advocates as the only reasonable way to settle the Arab-Israeli conflict. "Strategically Hizbullah is an Egyptian adversary. It is as simple as that," commented one Egyptian official who asked for his name to be withheld.

Since 2006, Egypt has gone public with this position. Indeed, Cairo is furious with Hizbullah leader Hassan Nasrallah for having "dared" to call on top generals of the Egyptian army during the Israeli war on Gaza to challenge the decision of President Hosni Mubarak to keep the Rafah Crossing linking Egyptian territories to Gaza closed. Moreover, officials are making no secret of their threats to Hizbullah to back off or face Egypt's rage.

For its part, Hizbullah is open in its frustration with what it qualifies as an Egyptian attempt to stifle resistance, especially in Gaza. Hizbullah is angry not just for the recent arrest of one of its agents while trying to smuggle arms into Gaza, but also for other actions that Egypt has taken, including its interception of arms shipments to Hizbullah itself. Further, Nasrallah naturally is not amused by the attacks launched against him in Egypt's state-run media.

To judge by official statements, it appears the current confrontation will not end soon. Egypt is determined to smear Hizbullah as the agent of Iran that is attempting to challenge Egypt's call to champion Arab rights. Hizbullah, according to the weekend address of Nasrallah, is labelling the Egyptian regime as an anti-resistance apparatus that is working to stifle Hamas in favour of Israel.

Israel, to judge by the statements of its officials, is set to gain much from this confrontation. Egyptian officials do not deny security coordination with Israel. However, they insist that at the end of the day Egypt "is not at all interested in strengthening Israel". "Not in the least. Yes, we are opposed to Hizbullah, and we want it to put down its arms and turn into a political party, but it does not serve our strategic interests to strengthen Israel," commented one Egyptian official.

Further complicating the situation is Lebanon's upcoming legislative elections. Cairo knows that too strong an attack on Hizbullah would open the way to Egypt's allies in Lebanon -- including Prime Minister Fouad Al-Siniora and parliament majority leader Saad Al-Hariri -- coming under a counter-attack. Indeed, Cairo has showed understanding of the Lebanese government's reluctance to comment on the Egypt-Hizbullah showdown. A meeting between Egyptian Ambassador to Beirut Ahmed Badawi and Al-Siniora produced little in the way of results.

Moreover, Egypt recognises that Hizbullah is far from being isolated, regionally or internationally. Egyptian embassies report to Cairo that Hizbullah members and associates are increasingly being received in capitals like London and Berlin. They also report an expanding tendency within academic and advocacy quarters in these and other Western capitals -- including Washington -- to call for "engaging" rather than isolating Hizbullah.

For its part, Hizbullah seems aware of the fact that if Egypt decides to maximise the confrontation -- if only at the level of intelligence activity -- it could give the resistance movement a tough time. Further, Egypt could act to dismantle Arab and international openness towards Hamas and Hizbullah, and even if it cannot end this openness completely.

According to Manar El-Shorbagui, associate professor of political science at the American University in Cairo, the ongoing showdown between Hizbullah and Egypt emphasises the "two- camps" theory that divides Arabs into "moderates" and "hardliners", and this is not in the interest of either side. While acknowledging the offence of attempting to use Egyptian territories to convey arms, El-Shorbagui is convinced the issue can be resolved without media confrontation.

Arab diplomats who approached the Egyptian government and Hizbullah -- at times at the request of Al-Siniora's government -- have advocated "a quiet security approach that could settle the matter and provide Cairo with sufficient guarantees that its sovereignty will not be overlooked in any way". Hizbullah has nodded, one source told Al-Ahram Weekly. Egypt, another source said, is still thinking.

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