by Peter Kenyon
All Things Considered, April 22, 2009
In Egypt, officials and pro-government media are waging a heated campaign against the Lebanese Hezbollah movement.
Egyptian authorities say a "Hezbollah terrorist cell" was caught plotting attacks against Egyptian targets. Hezbollah's leader says they were simply trying to assist the Palestinians trapped inside the Gaza Strip. The furor could complicate Washington's efforts to re-engage with Hezbollah's main backer, Iran.
In January, as Israeli warplanes pounded the Gaza Strip, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah accused Egypt of collaborating with Israel and called on Egyptians to rise up against their government.
Hezbollah emerged in 1982 as a Shiite militant group trained by the Iranians to counter the Israeli invasion of Lebanon. It is considered a terrorist organization by the U.S. and other Western countries, but has grown into a major opposition party in Lebanon that also controls a militia — probably the strongest force in Lebanon.
Although Hezbollah's defiance of Israel is highly popular in the Arab world, Nasrallah's comments angered Egyptians, even many of those who agreed that their leaders are mishandling the Gaza crisis.
Helping Palestinians Vs. Plotting Coup
So when Egypt announced recently that it had arrested dozens of members of a suspected Hezbollah terrorist cell, anti-Hezbollah sentiments erupted. The group was accused of monitoring Suez Canal traffic and sizing up potential targets at Egyptian resorts, as well as smuggling weapons.
The pro-government press howled in outrage. Al-Ahram newspaper accused Hezbollah of trying to engineer a coup. The uproar only increased when Nasrallah responded by admitting that the suspected leader of the cell, Sami Shehab, was part of Hezbollah.
"The brother Sami [Shehab] is a member of Hezbollah, and we are not denying this," Nasrallah said. "He was there to give logistical help to the Palestinian brothers in their resistance. All the accusations by the Egyptian district attorney are nothing but lies."
Nasrallah's protests that Shehab was simply trying to help the people of Gaza were drowned out by the Egyptian anger. The controversy quickly broadened to include Iran. Iranian officials said Egypt had fabricated the terrorism charges; Egypt's Foreign Ministry summoned the Iranian envoy for a dressing-down.
Analysts say it became apparent that the flap was over more than Egypt's unwillingness to open its border with Gaza. It emerged that the arrests had been made several months ago, well before the Israeli assault on Gaza began in late December.
Abdel Monem Said, director of the state-sponsored Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, says Hezbollah was part of an effort to move weapons from Iran, Somalia and elsewhere onto Sudanese boats for transfer to Egypt. He says Egyptian authorities are not convinced that all those arms were intended for the Palestinians.
"I believe the thing is much larger than that," Said says. "Hezbollah is building an infrastructure for violence. They can aid Gaza, but they can attack NATO ships, put mines in the Red Sea, a number of really dangerous things. And they have been doing it since 2005. There is no way that Hezbollah could have done that without Iranian help.
Said says the operation began during the Bush administration. But he believes Tehran is not yet convinced by President Obama's call for dialogue, so Iran is hedging its bets.
"I believe that the Iranians are working on both possibilities, because we talk about dialogue, but dialogue is another theater of operations. Iran is [also] trying to strengthen … its own positions, whether it is going to a military confrontation or a dialogue," Said says.
Meanwhile, Egyptian defense attorneys say any confessions by the arrested suspects should be thrown out because they may have been obtained through torture. Officials say the trial could begin in the coming weeks.