Edition 15 Volume 7 - April 23, 2009
The Egypt-Hizballah affair
Sunni-Shi'ite threat to Arab regimes -
The vocal Egyptian campaign against Hizballah may be meant to undercut the chances of Hizballah's electoral alliance.
A public relations bust -
an interview with Mustafa al-Sawwaf
The Arab regimes are paralyzed and they want everybody to be paralyzed along with them.
Time to unite against Iran -
Iran, Hamas and Hizballah are the real and principal enemy and all who oppose them are our allies.
Egypt strikes back -
Gamal A. G. Soltan
Egypt will not subscribe to a reconciliation that allows the radical forces to continue enjoying the same freedom of action.
Sunni-Shi'ite threat to Arab regimes
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.
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.
A public relations bust
an interview with Mustafa al-Sawwaf
BI: Egypt has accused Hizballah of planning to attack targets in Egypt. What do you make of this accusation?
Al-Sawwaf: I don't believe the Egyptian claims that Hizballah was planning to execute military operations against Egyptian interests or against foreign or Israeli targets in Egypt. I believe there was an attempt to provide Gaza with weapons and this is how the Egyptian accusations arose. I think the Egyptian regime is trying to curry favor with the new American administration and those who are meeting to discuss ways to prevent weapons smuggling into Gaza from Egypt. In addition there are political reasons, which include US financial support and maintaining good Egyptian-Israeli relations.
BI: Do you think Cairo feels threatened by Hizballah or Hamas?
Al-Sawwaf: Egypt is too large to be threatened by Hizballah or any other movement. Unfortunately, the political regime in Cairo is undermining the traditional role and position of Egypt. I don't think any resistance movement wants to jeopardize Egyptian national security. Egypt, during the time of Gamal Abdel Nasser, used to play an important role in supporting the Arab resistance. It's strange how this role has completely turned.
Hamas, furthermore, has never been a threat to any Arab country. On the contrary, Hamas has always tried to ensure good relations with all Arab and Muslim countries. The movement has time and again said that it is against interfering in the domestic affairs of any Arab country. Hamas' resistance is confined to fighting the Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands and no more than that.
BI: Hizballah admitted that it was active in Egypt, but only to help Gaza. Is Hizballah providing any kind of help to Gaza and Hamas?
Al-Sawwaf: What [Hizballah leader] Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah said was that one of those arrested was a Hizballah activist based in Egypt to facilitate the process of providing Gaza with weapons. He didn't specify whether these weapons were going to Hamas or Islamic Jihad. But in any case, Hamas and all the other resistance movements in Gaza welcome any support from Arab countries or other quarters to help them resist the occupation and defend Palestinians.
BI: People talk about Shi'ite-Sunni conflict in the region. But is there Shi'ite-Sunni conflict, or would it be more accurate to look at competition in the region as being between resistance movements and state regimes?
Al-Sawwaf: The Arab regimes are paralyzed and they want everybody to be paralyzed along with them. They don't want to provide the Palestinian resistance with weapons simply because they are paralyzed. There is no Shi'ite-Sunni conflict in any Arab country. The Americans are the ones who invented this game, and they did so in order to create divisions among Arabs and provoke conflicts. The real conflict is how to manage support for the Palestinian resistance in spite of the Arab regimes.
BI: Why do you think the argument between Cairo and Hizballah erupted now?
Al-Sawwaf: Egypt arrested the cell before the recent war on Gaza, but after the European, American and Israeli meetings to find ways to fight weapons smuggling into Gaza through Egypt. Cairo has presented the story as if it was a recent event to show itself as capable and active in fighting such smuggling.
BI: What effect might the argument between Cairo and Hizballah have in Gaza?
Al-Sawwaf: I believe nothing will affect Gaza unless its people give up and that's impossible. Egypt and others are trying to stop weapons smuggling into Gaza but the resistance movements can secure weapons in many ways. In the past, weapons were obtained from Israeli sources and whatever happens, there will always be a way to get weapons. The struggle here is one for freedom and justice, and for as long as it has to continue a way will be found to fight.- Published 23/4/2009 © bitterlemons-international.org
Mustafa al-Sawwaf is editor-in-chief of the Gaza-based Falasteen daily newspaper.
Time to unite against Iran
The success of Egyptian intelligence against Iran's espionage and sabotage ring in Egypt not only saved the lives of hundreds of people. It also revealed Iran's modus operandi for taking over countries and territories in the region.
Iran seeks to depose independent regimes in the area that reject its religious system and refuse to become part of the "resistance camp", meaning the new Persian empire. Regimes are to be overthrown by weakening their economies through terrorist attacks and assassinating key ruling figures.
Iran may have forced the "Doha accord" on the Lebanese political system, but it is using Hizballah not only to take over Lebanon. Hizballah is deployed against Egypt (as recently revealed), Jordan and Gulf states as well. Nor is Gaza merely a launching base for rockets and missiles aimed at Israel. The Hamas "emirate" established in Gaza with Iranian money and weapons also serves as a cover for Hizballah's activities against Egypt. Hizballah leader Hassan Nasrallah has now virtually admitted as much: Hizballah's "logistical assistance" activities in Egypt on behalf of Hamas concealed preparations for terrorist attacks on Egypt's soil.
Beyond uncovering Iran's modus operandi, however, Egypt's reaction spotlights the true fault line in the Middle East. No longer is this the old delineation between Israel and the Arab world. Now, on one side of the line are Iran and its proxies, Hizballah, Hamas and Syria. On the other are all the countries that do not wish to live according to the extremist Shi'ite version of Islam and are not interested in confrontation with western culture or a new war with Israel. These states treasure their own sovereignty and don't want to become part of the new empire that Iran is building--from Herat in the mountains of Afghanistan to Beirut on the Mediterranean coast.
The lesson that Israel and its neighbors can learn from the Hizballah affair in Egypt is the need to act in concert against a common enemy. Not everyone in Israel understands this or appreciates where the true Middle East fault line lies. Not everyone recognizes that Iran, Hamas and Hizballah are the real and principal enemy and that all who oppose them are our allies.
The Arab Peace Initiative is the authorized expression of this new regional division. Myopia has denied this document its rightful response from Jerusalem. We don't have to accept every single line in the API, but we do need to respect it as an acceptable opening stand on the part of the Arab side.
Events in Egypt demonstrate that the most urgent place to cooperate is Gaza. Iran has turned the Gaza Strip into a forward terror base against both Israel and Egypt, at a huge cost to Palestinians. We need a joint, coordinated Palestinian-Egyptian-Israeli effort to put an end to Hamas rule in Gaza. As long as Hamas is in charge in Gaza and Iran sends it money and weapons, the fighting and suffering there will not end. Nor is there any sense in rebuilding Gaza now: sooner or later the fighting will be renewed and everything will again be destroyed.
The immediate lesson to be derived from events in Egypt is to end Hamas rule in Gaza. Egypt has to play a central role in achieving this vital objective. In so doing, Cairo will not only serve its own security and stability but will also restore a life of dignity to 1.5 million Palestinians who have become hostages of Hizballah, Hamas and Iran. Once Hamas rule in Gaza has ended, the way will be open for the rehabilitation and economic development that Gaza so desperately needs.
This will also be the first confirmation that it is possible to halt the advance of the ayatollahs' empire.- Published 23/4/2009 © bitterlemons-international.org
Ephraim Sneh, a retired IDF general, served in Israeli governments as minister of health, minister of transportation and deputy minister of defense. He is currently chairman of the S. Daniel Abraham Center for Strategic Dialogue at the Netanya Academic College.
Egypt strikes back
Gamal A. G. Soltan
The current tension between Egypt and Hizballah is a crisis that has been waiting to happen for years. The causes of tension between the two sides are multifaceted. This is a conflict between nationalism and supra-nationalism, between Egypt and Iran, between moderation and radicalism, between Sunnis and Shi'ites and between status quo and revisionist forces in the Middle East. Hizballah's ideology, its nature as a non-state armed actor and its strong alliance with Iran are sufficient to generate heavy doubts and concerns among mainstream Arab states regarding the movement.
Until the year 2000, Hizballah's dedication to the mission of ending Israeli occupation in southern Lebanon helped offset these concerns. But since the unilateral Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon in May of that year, apprehension has been rising regarding the possibility that Hizballah is redirecting its capabilities toward further destabilization of the region.
Hizballah interference in other countries' internal affairs was bound to happen. Hizballah successfully established itself as a Lebanese national resistance movement during the Israeli occupation of southern Lebanon. As such, it was able to conceal the other dimensions integral to its identity. The ideology of Hizballah commits the party to the goals and strategies of the revolutionary Islamic movement: transforming the nature of Middle East political systems and societies and the liberation of all of Palestine.
Ironically, the Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon in 2000 was at the same time Hizballah's greatest achievement and the development that denied the party the capacity to further conceal its supra-national identity. The partial stabilization of the situation in southern Lebanon in the aftermath of the 2006 conflict made a new Hizballah adventure across the Lebanese-Israeli border unlikely. Hizballah had to find other venues for demonstrating its hard-line anti-Israel stand. It was Gaza that gave the party a new opportunity to maintain its anti-Israel credentials.
The extra-territorial revolutionary forces of Islamism have gained tremendous influence in the past few years. The many mistakes committed by the United States in the post 9/11 period granted revolutionary Islamism a golden opportunity to advance its popularity among the peoples of the Middle East. Moreover, US policy has been instrumental in granting Iran precious opportunities to further its influence in the region. The combined power of radical Islamism and the state of Iran expose moderates in the Middle East to tremendous pressure.
The current Hizballah-Egypt affair should be perceived within this context. Egypt, like any other state, cannot tolerate the encroachment of either a foreign government or a non-state armed actor on its sovereignty and national security. The strong Egyptian reaction to the arrest of Hizballah's operatives in Egypt, however, indicates that Egypt's concerns and objectives go beyond the mere elimination of the illegal ring of Hizballah's operatives. Egypt is apparently turning this incident into an opportunity to convict Hizballah of committing the capital crime of tampering with the national security of a neighboring state.
Radical revisionist forces in the Middle East have been able during the past couple of years to obfuscate the distinction between their national and supra-national goals. Claims have been made by radicals that the security and interests of Middle East peoples and states are not to be put at risk as a result of the radical policies pursued in places such as Gaza and Lebanon. Legitimate sympathy with the plight of the Palestinians at the time of a failing Middle East peace process has allowed radicals the opportunity to market their claims region-wide. Yet the ring of Hizballah's operatives shut down in Egypt and the kinds of activities they plotted on Egyptian soil demonstrate the risks posed to states' national security by these same radical tactics and policies, alongside the inherent conflicts between rival orientations in Middle East politics.
Egypt's strategy in handling the Hizballah ring it captured seeks the achievement of a number of goals. On the domestic level, there is an attempt to capitalize on the incident to win back the support of segments of the Egyptian public that were lost to radical propaganda during the past few years. The Hizballah case lends itself to the mobilization of the Egyptian sense of national identity that had been overwhelmed by strong waves of Arabism and Islamism. The recent conflict in Gaza, in particular, was successfully employed by radicals to advance their supra-national cause. Winning the Egyptian public back to Egyptian nationalism is instrumental as a legitimating strategy and as a safeguard against further trespassing by radical regional forces against Egyptian security and interests.
Egypt's escalated reaction against Hizballah is designed to deter the revolutionary pro-Iran party from further encroaching on its interests. It provoked Iranian officials to come to the rescue of their valuable ally: the harsh words exchanged between Iranian and Egyptian officials reveal the regional dimension of the incident. Egypt is interested in mobilizing the moderate Arab states against this Iranian and radical influence.
Egypt also seeks to contribute to stability by containing conflicts between radicals and moderates region-wide. Yet it is not satisfied with the terms of the nascent reconciliation between radicals and moderates in the Arab world. In particular Egypt, which was strongly targeted by the inflammatory radical propaganda of Hizballah, Syria and Iran as they sought to mobilize the Egyptian public against its government and regime during the Gaza conflict, will not subscribe to a reconciliation that allows the radical forces to continue enjoying the same freedom of action as before.- Published 23/4/2009 © bitterlemons-international.org
Gamal A. G. Soltan is director of al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, Cairo.