CAIRO: The Egyptian regime’s political and verbal confrontation with Hezbollah demonstrates that Egypt has opted for deepening the rift with Iran and its allies.
Egypt’s hostile posture towards Hezbollah predates the recent arrest of purported Hezbollah operatives in Egypt. Its clearest manifestation came when it blamed the Lebanese militia for the Israeli war on Lebanon in 2006, stating that the former’s “uncalculated adventures jeopardized the security of the Arab nation.
Generally, Egyptian foreign policy under President Hosni Mubarak has perceived Islamic regimes and groups with a great deal of mistrust and wariness. This has been evident in Egypt’s attitude toward The Islamic Republic of Iran, Sudan (under the alliance of President Al-Beshir with Islamists in the 1990s), Hamas and Hezbollah.
The regime’s fears of the potential cooperation between these groups and Egypt’s greatest opposition force, the Muslim Brotherhood, stand as one powerful explanation for that mistrust, in spite of the lack of solid evidence of such cooperation. Policies are often motivated by perceptions, beliefs and images of the ‘other.’
Cairo’s current political and propaganda war against Iran and its allies, however, suggests that the Egyptian regime decided to escalate its discord with the bloc of radicals. Leaders of authoritarian regimes, who are short on legitimacy, are usually extremely sensitive to the involvement of other forces in their own domestic affairs. And there is an increasing apprehension among Cairo’s political elite that Iran is meddling in Egyptian affairs.
Hassan Nasrallah’s call on Egyptian people and armed forces to wage mass demonstrations to force their government to open the Rafah crossing during the Israeli offense on Gaza was particularly worrying. After Egypt’s public prosecutor announced the arrest of the Hezbollah cell in Egypt, Egyptian Foreign Minister, Ahmed Aboul Gheit, told Asharq Al-Awsat that “Iran used Hezbollah to retain a presence on Egyptian soil and to tell Egyptians: we are here.
Aside from the Egyptian regime’s hysteric, even groundless, worry about its security, there are good reasons to believe that a total breakup with Iran and Hezbollah is not in the strategic interest of the Egyptian state.
First, the much-acclaimed ‘balance of power’ theory suggests that the political and military might of the camp of radicals – Iran, Hamas and Hezbollah – is a powerful deterrent against Israel’s expansionist ventures. If these forces are emasculated, Egypt will be vulnerable to different kinds of Israeli blackmailing.
A recent poll conducted by The Israel Democracy Institute revealed that 89 percent of Israelis approve the re-occupation of the Sinai Peninsula, or parts of it. Under a current or future right-wing government in Israel, which uses the pretext of ‘security’ to justify aggression, that scenario is not far-fetched.
Secondly, the reliability of Egypt’s allies in the confrontation against Iran is not completely guaranteed. The United States has become, under the leadership of Barack Obama, closer to a rapprochement with Iran than it was anytime during the last 30 years.
On its part, Iran’s religious leadership has frequently shown signs of pragmatism and moderation. An American-Iranian understanding is certainly not imminent, but should not be totally ruled out in the future. Coping with that scenario requires keeping lines of communication open with all regional parties.
The anti-Iranian Arab front, which includes Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Jordan, is also not as solid as it appears. The coherence of this grouping is diluted by differences in perceptions, priorities and policy methods, and the penchant for regional leadership frequently impinges on Egyptian-Saudi relations.
Thirdly, the massive propaganda campaign waged by Egypt’s official media against Hezbollah did not bear fruit on the public opinion level. Many Egyptians do not forget that Hezbollah’s 5,000 men strained Israel’s mighty war machine, while the Egyptian army, the largest in the region, has not fired a single shot at Israel for the past 35 years, the suffering of Palestinians notwithstanding.
Egyptians compare Mubarak’s unimpressive, even stolid, character with Nasrallah, who is a charismatic leader and an incendiary speaker. They also compare, with a great deal of lament and frustration, the fate of Nasrallah and Mubarak’s sons. Nasrallah’s eldest son, Hadi, was martyred at the age of 17 while fighting Israeli occupation forces in Southern Lebanon. Gamal Mubarak, meanwhile, turned into a multi-billionaire and was allowed to run the defunct ruling party and contemplate about succeeding his father.
The media campaign ended in a fiasco. Senior Egyptian officials should be reminded that: “people who live in glass houses should not throw stones.
These three strategic considerations notwithstanding, a change of course might well need a change of regime.
Nael M. Shama, PhD, is a political researcher and freelance writer based in Cairo. He could be reached at: email@example.com