Arrests in Egypt of Hezbollah members

Press review – Week from April 13 to 17, 2009

As confirmed by Le Monde, on April 8th, the counsel for the Egyptian state announced the dismantlement of a Hezbollah cell in Egypt, accusing Hassan Nasrallah of « recruiting members for the movement (…) to conduct acts of aggression (in Egypt).  » Since then, attacks against Hezbollah, especially in the Egyptian newspapers, have been multiplied, treating among others, the leader of « monkey » and « hardened criminal ». According to the Egyptian press, the Hezbollah cell in Egypt was preparing terrorist operations against Israeli tourists at Sinai resorts. Hezbollah may be seeking to avenge the death of Imad Moghniyeh, military leader of the movement, killed in Damascus in February 2008 probably by the Israeli services.

After these arrests, Hezbollah admitted operating outside Lebanon, which it never admitted. However, the movement said that the cell was sent to Egypt in order to help Palestinian militias in Gaza. Hassan Nasrallah said on April 10th that it was common knowledge that Hezbollah has long supplied arms to the Palestinians.

One of the mysteries of this case lies in the fact that these arrests have taken place four months ago and have been proved only these days.

Regional Reactions

According to le Monde, the publicity given by Egypt to this case allowed the arrests to become a subject of regional debate. In Syria, Al-Watan has denounced the Egyptian reaction as « a campaign that serves the interests of Israel » while for its part, Saudi Arabia welcomed the Egyptian position.

Another reaction came from the Israeli from Minister of Transports, Israel Katz -who is close to B. Netanyahu- who called for the physical elimination of the Lebanese Hezbollah leader, Hassan Nasrallah. The Minister also indicated that his government would try to establish a new separation wall between Gaza and Israel. He declared that his country should no longer exercise any civil liability in the Gaza Strip, especially on the passage of goods, liability that would constitute Egypt’s duty.

Moreover, Egyptian President Mubarak called the Lebanese President Fouad Siniora, according to Haaretz, reminding him that Egypt would not tolerate foreign factions to undermine its sovereignty and added that Egyptian justice would deal with the group Hezbollah sent to Egypt. If the comments on the attitude of Egypt were not the same everywhere, Arab reactions were granted to criticize the « interference » of Hezbollah in a State other than Lebanon. For the Saudi newspaper Al-Sharq al Awsat, the danger with Nasrallah and those like him is their aspiration to topple down governments and create spaces where anarchy reigns, like in Lebanon and allow Iran to have some control over the Arab world. The excuse that is always used is the defense of Palestine.

In the daily Asharq al-Awsat, General Sameh Al YAZAL considers that Hezbollah may now threaten Egyptian interests abroad. Dr. Mufeed Shehab, the Egyptian Minister of Parliamentary Affairs, read a message from the government saying that this case, which affects national security, will be treated with « zero tolerance » (…) within the legal framework. Besides, the Egyptian Committee for Defense and national security argued that « any conspiracy against Egypt and the Egyptians will only serve to unify the population. »

Haaretz points out that Egypt has enough of groups such as Hamas, Hezbollah or the Muslim Brotherhood which are trying to play the role of States. For Egypt, controlling these groups is not only a question of sovereignty but also of national security.

The worsening Egypt/ Hezbollah-Iran relations

The Foreign Minister of Egypt Ahmed Aboul Gheit declared that Iran uses Hezbollah to remind Egyptians of its capacity, according to le Monde. The French daily recalls that for thirty years, relations between Egypt and Iran have been very bad. Recently, during the military operation launched by Israel against Gaza, H. Nasrallah had urged Egypt to open the Rafah crossing and the Egyptian people to massively demonstrate, causing the wrath of Hosni Mubarak.

An article from AFP in Romandie News states that the Hezbollah members arrested in Egypt are accused of being members of « a clandestine organization calling for rebellion against the regime » as well as of acts of spying, Shiite proselytism, falsification of official documents and manufacturing explosive devices.

However, Mr. al-Montasser Zayyat, the lawyer of some of the arrested suspects, considers that the case has been created by the Egyptian security services in order to have a means of exerting pressure on Hezbollah and Iran. During the Israeli operation in Gaza, Cairo had treated H. Nasrallah of « agent of Tehran » and accused Iran of wanting to dominate the Middle East.

Iran and Egypt have no diplomatic relations since 1980 after the Iranian Islamic Revolution and following the recognition of Israel by Egypt.

The Israeli newspaper Haaretz denounces the verbal escalation between Egypt and Hezbollah by interposed media. Haaretz newspaper quoted the Egyptian daily al-Gomhouria which called the leader of Hezbollah « monkey face » and « criminal without repentance » in its editorial, asking H. Nasrallah if there are instructions from Iran to provoke a conflict in Egypt. In response, the Hezbollah television channel, Al-Manar, showed a program severely criticizing the Egyptians.

The daily is also concerned that the confrontation between Hezbollah and Egypt became more and more open. Indeed, in Cairo, Egyptians consider the eventuality to try in absentia H. Nasrallah and therefore make possible his extradition as a terrorist in case the trial took place. In addition, Egypt would be able to track him itself. To Haaretz, the situation is unusual: an Arab state would indict the head of an organization, which is itself part of the leadership of another Arab state.

But above all, Haaretz wondered about the reasons that led Egypt to publicize the arrests this week while they took place four months ago. The analysis of the daily estimated that this shift can be explained by the growing hostility between Egypt and Hezbollah. Egypt, like Saudi Arabia, is not pleased with the strengthening of Iran’s position in the region and the U.S. desire to establish a USA / Iran dialogue. To Haaretz, Egypt felt « set aside » after Obama’s choice to begin his « trek » of the Muslim world with Turkey and by the new weight given to Iran in the US president’s speeches. As a result, showing that Iran has blood on its hands would have been a way for Egypt to make a sort of diplomatic balancing.

This thesis is also the one that supports the Turkish daily Hurriyet saying that Egypt and Saudi Arabia have repeatedly drawn attention to the Iranian power while avoiding confrontation with Tehran. In addition, Egypt would like today the United States to give the country as much interest as they give to Iran, said Professor Mustapha al-Sayyid.

Finally, this atmosphere of tensions leads some analysts to wonder about the strife between Shiites and Sunnis. Al-Ahram Hebdo went further in the discussion by speaking of a « Shiite alibi » and wondering if the Shi’ism is a real danger to the Sunnis or just an argument to cover up political failures of the Arab region.