Egypt versus Hizbullah

Egypt versus Hizbullah

Egypt accuses Lebanon ’s Hizbullah of spying against it

IN A sign of a deepening rift between differently aligned camps across the Middle East, Egypt ’s authorities claim to have busted a spy ring run by Hizbullah , Lebanon ’s Shia party-cum-militia, on Egyptian soil. Whereas Egypt has long claimed to lead the region’s peacemakers, the Lebanese group is allied to a front which embraces Syria , Iran and Hamas, the Palestinian Islamist party ruling the Gaza Strip, and espouses confrontation with Israel . Exposure of an alleged Hizbullah cell feeds the fears of many Sunni Arab governments, as well as many of Lebanon ’s diverse people, that Shia Iran is using the group, which won prestige across the Middle East for parrying an assault by Israel in 2006, to extend its influence at their expense.

Egypt ’s state prosecutor has charged 25 people, including Lebanese, Palestinians, Sudanese and Egyptians, with forming a cell to smuggle weapons across Egypt ’s border with Gaza , to monitor shipping in the Suez Canal and to plot attacks against Egypt itself. Government-owned newspapers in Cairo say the cell, whose main operatives appear to have been rounded up in November, planned terrorist attacks on Egyptian resort hotels, targeting Israeli tourists with the aim of stoking general unrest and prompting a military coup. Other Egyptian press reports assert that a separate round of arrests in December netted four members of Iran ’s Revolutionary Guards, disguised as Iraqi Shia refugees.

This blaze of Egyptian accusations underlines the frustration felt by the government of President Hosni Mubarak, which has borne withering opprobrium due to its refusal to open crossings into Gaza to relieve the besieged Palestinian territory. Egypt ’s discomfort peaked during Israel ’s 22-day assault on Hamas in Gaza earlier this year, when Hizbullah’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah, charged Mr Mubarak with complicity with the “Zionist regime” and dramatically called on Egyptian officers to save their country’s honour. Egypt has remained isolated in Arab public opinion as Mr Mubarak has subsequently cracked down on cross-border smuggling and struggled to strong-arm Hamas into sharing power with its secular rival, Fatah, by using the opening of the border as a lure.

Some of Egypt ’s charges may be true. In a televised speech, Mr Nasrallah admitted that one of the arrested men was a party member engaged in logistical work to help “our Palestinian brothers”. But the Hizbullah leader, who has a reputation for frankness, said that no more than ten of the alleged plotters had any link to his party, and denied any intent to harm Egypt . “If aiding the Palestinians is a crime, then I am guilty and proud of it,” he said.

His deputy, Naim Qassem, said Hizbullah’s people had clear instructions not to take any action against Israelis in Egypt . He posed a rhetorical question. “How can Israel have the right to receive weapons and intelligence from all the world, while one small effort to lift the oppression of the Palestinians or supply basic necessities to keep their struggle going is condemned?”

This logic still appeals to many in the region. But just as Mr Nasrallah’s unsubtle call for Mr Mubarak’s overthrow annoyed even some of the Egyptian president’s foes at home, the revelation of Hizbullah intrigue raises questions about the group’s intentions. Though implicated in past acts of international terror, Hizbullah in recent years has declared itself concerned solely with Lebanese affairs, increasingly so as Lebanon ’s general election due in June approaches. Its critics in Lebanon now have new cause to complain that the party risks enmeshing their country in regional squabbles they want no part of.

The Source