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April 23, 2009 Edition 15

Sunni-Shi'ite threat to Arab regimes
Ferry Biedermann

For all the verbal fireworks coming out of Cairo, Egypt's campaign against the Lebanese Hizballah movement may not amount to much in the end. We're talking after all about a country that cannot even exert significant influence over events in neighboring Gaza and that cannot rein in the Palestinian Hamas movement there to which it is ostensibly not well disposed either. To think that it can counter Hizballah in any meaningful way in its Lebanese home base or anywhere else in the region, beyond its own borders, seems farfetched. But the row does emphasize a couple of regional fault lines and raises questions of Hizballah's international ambitions and the extent of its coordination with Iran.

Articles in this edition
Egypt strikes back - Gamal A. G. Soltan
Time to unite against Iran - Ephraim Sneh
A public relations bust - an interview with Mustafa al-Sawwaf
Sunni-Shi'ite threat to Arab regimes - Ferry Biedermann
While many in Lebanon have focused on the Egyptian charges that Hizballah was planning to carry out attacks on its soil, the claim by its leader, Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, that the group was smuggling arms to Palestinian factions in Gaza, for which "we do not apologize", was the more remarkable. Any attack on Israelis in Egypt can be construed as being in line with his earlier pledge to seek revenge for the killing of Hizballah commander Imad Moughniyeh in Damascus last year, of which the group has accused Israel. But the now open extension of Hizballah's role to supporting the Palestinian cause hundreds of miles from the Lebanese border opens up the prospect of a continued confrontation with Israel even if all outstanding Lebanese-Israeli issues get settled. It also lifts a tip of the veil of secrecy that has always covered persistent indications that Hizballah does have an international strategy, be it in the Palestinian territories, in Iraq or in South America.

Hizballah's support for Hamas in Gaza is in a way not surprising given the well-known ties that go back several years now between Iran and Hamas. What is significant is that Hizballah's and Tehran's aid to Hamas gives the lie to the notion that militant Shi'ite and Sunni movements do not cooperate. Since Hamas, apart from its Palestinian nationalist agenda, is also an offshoot of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, such cooperation becomes even more important and could be regarded as a real threat by some of the so-called moderate or pro-western Arab regimes. This may be one of the reasons behind Egypt's decision to take Hizballah on in such a public and vocal way.

The combination of Iranian support and Hizballah's guerrilla expertise and Arab nationalist appeal seems to be an alarming one for Arab states. Egypt's foreign minister immediately claimed a link between Iran and Hizballah's alleged activities in his country. The rivalry between Cairo and Tehran is well established by now and Egypt has kept a wary eye on increased Iranian influence in the region, which has been particularly in evidence since 2003. Iran and Hizballah received a further boost from the 2006 war when Hizballah fought credibly against the Israelis. By some accounts the popularity of the group among ordinary Egyptians has been neutralized by the row, which would be an achievement for the Egyptian authorities.

The confrontation also comes at a time when the Obama administration's advances toward Iran have made Cairo, as well as other Arab regimes, even more nervous about being sidelined in the region's great game. The Americans seem momentarily more interested in bringing on board the more rejectionist and hence more popular players in the Arab-Israel conflict rather than relying on their traditional allies. If Cairo can convince the Americans that Iran had a hand in a real plot in Egypt, it may put a bit of a break on the administration's ardor in pursuing Tehran.

The vocal Egyptian campaign against Hizballah may finally be meant to undercut the chances of Hizballah's electoral alliance in the upcoming elections in Lebanon. These will be decided in the Christian areas where there is a contest between anti-Syrian groups and the faction following former General Michel Aoun, who has signed an agreement with Hizballah. That movement's international entanglements may embarrass the general. His Christian followers often have little sympathy for the armed Shi'ite group. They may tolerate it as long as it claims to be defending Lebanon's interests but not when it is aiding the Palestinians to the detriment of Lebanon's interests.

As with all else, the way in which the affair is being viewed in Lebanon depends on the political allegiance of the person who is being asked. In some anti-American quarters the Egyptian accusations are seen as paving the way for another assault on Hizballah by Israel. Others cannot believe that the country may once again be held hostage by the actions of one particular group. They note that Egypt has also accused the Lebanese state of giving cover to Hizballah and they wonder how it will affect Egypt's support for Lebanon vis-a-vis Syria. Hizballah itself is reasonably immune to pressure but if the group is indeed carrying out an international strategy in coordination with Iran, this could have long-lasting implications for Lebanon.- Published 23/4/2009 © bitterlemons-international.org

Ferry Biedermann is a freelance correspondent based in the Netherlands.

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