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Egypt: Taking a Public Stand Against Hezbollah

6 MINS READApr 15, 2009 | 19:09 GMT
JOSEPH BARRAK/AFP/Getty Images
Summary
Egyptian and Israeli officials have released information to the press about an alleged Hezbollah plan to target Israeli tourists visiting Red Sea resorts on Egypt's Sinai Peninsula. Egypt has responded to the threat with comments that Hezbollah "will pay a heavy price" for planning such attacks. However, in spite of Egypt's public outrage and increasing pressure on Hezbollah throughout the region, Iran remains committed to its agenda of using Hezbollah as a tool to spread its influence in the Arab world.
Hezbollah "will pay a heavy price for plotting terror attacks aimed at undermining Egypt's sovereignty," an anonymous Egyptian official was quoted as saying in an April 15 report in Egypt's state-owned Al-Ahram newspaper. The official added that Egypt has "all the means and options to punish Hezbollah" for planning attacks on Egyptian soil. Over the past week, Egyptian and Israeli officials have released information to the press on an alleged Hezbollah plot to target Israeli tourists who frequent resorts along the Red Sea in the Egyptian Sinai Peninsula during the spring and summer. Egyptian officials claim they caught operatives surveiling Israeli tourists at the Sinai resorts and smuggling bomb-making materials from Sudan and Somalia. So far, Egypt claims that it has 25 of the cell's 49 members in custody, and that the group included one Lebanese and several Egyptians and Palestinians. Israel also issued a warning to its citizens to avoid traveling to the Sinai Coast due to intelligence reports that militants were planning to target Israeli citizens there. With their tourism industry already taking a big hit from such threats, the Egyptians are now vigorously publicizing their outrage against Hezbollah, even using the state press to call Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah a "monkey sheikh", a "Iranian agent" and "Dracula." The Egyptian regime has watched with concern as Iranian and Hezbollah activity in Egypt has steadily increased over the past few years. Unlike the Sunni Arab countries like Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and the United Arab Emirates which have sizable Shiite populations Iran can potentially exploit, Egypt has a small Shiite population — less than 1 percent of its total population of 73 million. Nonetheless, Egypt has not been immune to Iran's Shiite expansionist threat, and Cairo continues to regard its tiny Shiite population with deep suspicion. In April 2006, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak accused Arab Shiites of being "always loyal to Iran and not the countries where they live." Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Abul Gheit also was quoted as saying in an April 14 Asharq Al-Awsat report that "Iran and Iran's followers want Egypt to become a maid of honor for the crowned Iranian queen when she enters the Middle East. They used Hezbollah to gain a presence in Egypt and to say to Egyptians: We are here." Cairo is not concerned only about the Shia. Iranian-backed Hezbollah operatives are attempting to develop a wider network inside Egypt with both Sunnis and Shiites to pressure the Mubarak regime and provide the logistical links to supply Hamas in Gaza. As STRATFOR revealed in January, Hezbollah operatives were involved in supplying Hamas with arms from Sudan, where an arms convoy destined for Hamas was recently targeted in (what was presumed to have been) an Israeli air strike. In addition to having to worry about militant attacks on its own soil, Egypt also has to ensure that Israel does not have an excuse to launch air strikes in Egypt as part of its interdiction efforts against Hamas. As a result, Egypt has ample reason to share intelligence with the Israelis on Hezbollah activity in the country. The Iranians have dismissed the Egyptian allegations as a ploy to vilify Hezbollah ahead of Lebanese parliamentary elections in June. However, Iranian-backed operations with Salafists in North Africa are on the rise as Tehran is pursuing an agenda of developing more assets in the Arab world. Nasrallah even recently made an unprecedented admission that Sami Shehab, one of the operatives detained recently in Egypt, was a member of Hezbollah providing support to Hamas. Iran not only wants to demonstrate that its influence reaches far beyond the borders of the Islamic Republic, but it also wants an insurance policy against the Sunni Arabs and their Western allies in case of attack. Planning attacks against Israelis at Sinai resorts also allows Iran to reclaim the radical Islamist agenda from al Qaeda and its jihadist allies, who have focused on this target set in the past. Hezbollah operatives have undoubtedly been the key to Iran's ability to spread into North Africa. However, the Shiite militant organization is feeling pressure from following Iran's orders. Particularly since the death of Hezbollah leader Imad Mughniyah, Iran's grip over Hezbollah has tightened considerably, with Iranian officers stationed permanently at the Iranian Embassy complex in Beirut to issue directives to Hezbollah from Tehran. STRATFOR sources claim that Hezbollah officials have been discussing the blowback from their operations in Egypt. Several key members feel that Hezbollah has abused the popularity it gained from the 2006 war with Israel, when common Arabs — both Sunni and Shiite — expressed support for Hezbollah for "resisting the Israeli occupiers." Hezbollah thought it would be able to expand its influence beyond Lebanon by rising above the sectarian fray, promoting itself as a solidly Lebanese nationalist movement and appealing to Egyptians who have become disillusioned with the Mubarak regime. Moreover, with Lebanese parliament elections approaching in June, Hezbollah is trying to present itself to the West as a legitimate political party in order to avoid becoming diplomatically isolated should it achieve a major electoral victory, as Hamas did in 2006. With this latest plot unveiled, however, the Egyptian regime is taking the opportunity to disparage Hezbollah as a political and militant movement and counter any further cooperation between the Shiite group and other major opposition forces in Egypt, such as the Muslim Brotherhood. Hezbollah may be struggling with the blowback, but Iran is unlikely to let up its covert activity in North Africa just because the Egyptians are now exposing their plans. The Iranians have a strong intention to develop key assets in the Sunni Arab world and depend heavily on Hezbollah operatives to support their agenda. That said, Hezbollah itself has been feeling a bit short-changed by Iran lately since Iran has been struggling to fund its expenses while oil prices remain low. Hezbollah has been compensating for the financial cutbacks with revenues from its drug-trafficking business, but the very idea of Iran needing to scale back support for a key asset like Hezbollah raises questions about whether Iran will be able to sustain operations in other parts of the Arab world.

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