Al-Ahram Weekly Online   22 - 28 October 2009
Issue No. 969
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Harsh accusations

Accused of blocking the formation of a unity government and plotting sectarian violence in Tripoli, Egypt is under fire in Lebanon, Omayma Abdel-Latif writes in Beirut

Earlier this month, Lebanese politician Rifaat Ali Eid, secretary-general of the Arab Democratic Party, a political party that represents the Alawite minority in Tripoli, accused "Egyptian intelligence elements" of plotting to incite sectarian tension between impoverished Sunnis residents of Bab Al-Tebana and their fellow Alawite citizens in the equally poor neighbouring Jebel Mohsen community.

Sectarian-inspired violence between the two neighbourhoods date from the days of the Lebanese Civil War. Tension escalated since 2005 following the assassination of former prime minister Rafik Al-Hariri. It ebbed and flowed according to political circumstance. Saudi-financed Salafi groups have been usually accused of being behind waves of violence that have hit Tripoli since 2005.

The Egyptian embassy in Beirut was quick to dismiss the charges in a sharp-toned statement. A Lebanese official response, nonetheless, was conspicuously absent. Two Sunni religious men -- the mufti of Mount Lebanon, Mohamed Al-Jozo, and Lebanon's mufti, Mohamed Qabani -- took issue with Eid. But their criticism was more out of sectarian motive than to defend Egypt.

Eid's statements coincide with a barrage of criticism by Lebanese opposition figures and press reports that all point a finger at Egypt scuttling the formation of a unity government in Lebanon. The charge is that Egypt has put its weight behind acting Prime Minister Fouad Al-Siniora -- also known as "Egypt's man" -- to stay on in his post, as opposed to Saad Al-Hariri, prime minister elect and Saudi Arabia's favoured candidate. Egyptian diplomatic circles flatly deny this charge also.

Questions, however, are being raised about Egyptian policy in Lebanon. As for other states, the answers are to be found within the context of regional politics. Egypt left the Lebanese scene in 1977 following the assassination of Kamal Jumblatt who led the national movement. During the three decades that followed Egypt could not claim special influence. But that situation changed from 2005 onwards. "Lebanon represents a success story for Egyptian diplomacy," a close observer of Egyptian foreign policy told Al-Ahram Weekly. "It is an area where Egypt regained lost influence, unlike on other regional fronts."

Following the assassination of Rafik Al-Hariri Egypt reportedly felt "an urgent need to change strategy", opening up lines of communication with all parties on the Lebanese scene. When Syria withdrew from Lebanon in April 2005, ending three decades of military presence in the country, Egypt worked hard to keep Lebanon stable enough to ensure that it did not fail as a state, to defend Syria's stability against attempts at regime change there, and to prevent an outbreak of sectarian-inspired violence between Lebanon's Sunni and Shia population akin to Iraq.

But in practice Egypt's policy in Lebanon sometimes appeared puzzling, at times running counter to its declared goals. In the one hand, it upheld the rhetoric of keeping Lebanon stable and defending Syria in the face of accusations from Western-backed Lebanese politicians. But when Syrian- Egyptians relations began to falter, Egypt's policy choices changed accordingly. By throwing its weight fully behind the anti-Syria camp known as March 14, Egypt was perceived as taking sides in internal Lebanese affairs, while playing a role in exacerbating sectarian and political polarisation.

During Israel's July War on Lebanon in 2006, both Egypt and Saudi Arabia took a similar stand of blaming Hizbullah for "provoking" the Jewish state. Rumours were awash at the time that Egypt along with other "moderate" Arab countries provided financial and training assistance to groups affiliated to Saad Al-Hariri's Al-Mustaqbal (Future) Movement in order to set up what was described as a "Sunni force" to face up to Hizbullah. This was never proven, but the charge undoubtedly scarred Egypt's relations with the Lebanese opposition, particularly Hizbullah.

Egyptian foreign policy observers reject claims that Egypt's policy is driven by sectarian motivations. "Egypt is not a Sunni state," said one diplomat affirmatively. "It is a large Arab state and has all the problems of a large state." Aware of the negative view about Egypt held by a large segment of Lebanese, the Egyptian mission in Beirut planned a visit for Egypt's grand mufti who gave a Friday prayers sermon on the issue of the Sunni-Shia divide. "Egypt does not employ sectarian politics in its foreign policy, not out of being an anti- sectarian power, but simply because of realpolitik," said an observer.

The deteriorating situation in Iraq left Cairo with genuine fears of a similar scenario in Lebanon. Sunni-Shia strife in Lebanon, in Cairo's view, would have a destabilising effect across the region.

But why, then, did Cairo take the risk of backing Al-Siniora's government at a time of extreme political and sectarian polarisation? The Egyptians justify this by saying that this policy was merely a reflection of what Egypt stands for today: a "conservative power" that is more interested in maintaining stability and the existing balance of power. While Cairo understands Lebanon to be a system of confessional quotas, it claims to pursue an even-handed approach when dealing with antagonists on the Lebanese scene. Lebanese opposition figures, however, speak of "obvious Egyptian bias in favour of March 14 camp".

Today, Egypt has several interests in Lebanon. There are 20,000-30,000 Egyptian workers in Lebanon, according to embassy figures. Second, Egypt aims to be a stabilising force in the region. But Egypt is not alone on the Lebanese scene. It is one along many players, and some argue commands the least influence, compared to Syria or Saudi Arabia.

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