Since the announcement on April 8 that Egyptian authorities had arrested 49 members of a “Hizbullah cell” in the country, we have been subjected to a variety of explanations for the arrests and several different accounts of exactly what happened, when it happened, and why it happened. Much of this information has been leaked by Egyptian authorities, and little of it has survived critical scrutiny. More reliable information has come from Hizbullah itself, particularly in statements by its leader Shaikh Nasrallah. Montasser El-Zayat, an Egyptian lawyer well known for defending Islamic activists, who is representing at least some of the arrested, has denied a number of statements attributed to him.
The initial reports were that the arrests had taken place after the government had discovered an active cell that posed an imminent threat. This was followed by reports that the group had been found to be stock-piling explosives and weapons, and plotting terrorist attacks in the country, against both official and civilian targets. It later emerged that the arrests had in fact taken place in December and January, and several of the 49 suspects were still at large. The leader of the group was named as Sami Shehab, a Lebanese national, who is under arrest.
On April 10, two days after the news broke, Hizbullah leader Hassan Nasrallah acknowledged in a televised address that Shehab was a member of Hizbullah, and said that he was in Egypton “a logistical mission,” saying that his task was to “provide logistical help to Palestinian brothers, transporting ammunition and individuals for the benefit of the resistance inside Egypt.” He said that Shehab had a group of about 10 people supporting him in this task, and denied that there was any wider Hizbullah organization in the country. He also denied that there was any intention or infrastructure for conducting any operations in or against Egypt.
How the controversy will be resolved remains to be seen, but certain things can be said with confidence. The first is that whatever happens from here on will depend more on the political interests and imperatives of the Egyptian authorities (and their allies) than truth and justice. The second is that long experience teaches us that far more weight can be given to information provided by Hizbullah than anything coming from the Cairo.
It certainly makes no sense for Hizbullah to be engaged in any operations against Egypt or any other Arab state. It has no record of such activity, and no interest in adopting such a strategy. It has always and consistently focused entirely on the struggle against Israel, and internal politics in Lebanon, where also it has not engaged in military or terrorist activities. The explanation that its operations in Egypt were purely in support of Palestinian resistance in Gaza is entirely believable, particularly as Hamas, its main and natural ally in the Palestinian movement, is based in Gaza, which is accessible by land only via Egypt. Hizbullah has acknowledged that Shehab was working in Egypt to support Palestinians against Israel.
Why then would Cairo claim otherwise, accusing Hizbullah of planning terrorism in Egypt? Explanations are not hard to find. Firstly, Cairo has been under intense pressure from Israel and the US to stop assistance reaching the Palestinians from its territory, but could not afford to be seen to accede to Western pressure to stop support reaching the Palestinians. Therefore it accused the Hizbullah members of planning attacks in Egypt too.
Secondly, Arab governments and their allies have been very worried by the rising popularity of Hizbullah in particular, as well as its allies, including Islamic Iran, despite attempts to tar them as Shi’i and a threat to Sunni Arab countries. They would hope that the accusation that Hizbullah was planning terrorism against civilian targets such as tourist resorts in Arab countries would certainly damage its image and justify treating it and its supporters as terrorists. The accusation that Hizbullah was plotting attacks against tourists in Egypt can also be expected to crop up every time it is mentioned in the international media from now on, justifying the West’s branding of it as a terrorist group, and delegitimising both its struggle against Israel and its involvement in Lebanese politics, where parliamentary elections are due on June 7.
Finally, the accusations should also be seen in view of the Egyptian’s dealings with Hamas. Islamic Iran and Hizbullah are among the Palestinian Islamic movement’s few true allies. After the failure of Israel and the US to destroy Hamas during the recent war in Gaza, Arab states are under pressure to deal with Hamas and help it come back into the Palestinian political process on terms acceptable to the West and Israel. Egypt is being used by the US to deal with Hamas in the hope that its enmity can be blunted; to this end, the US and Israel would love to make Hamas choose between help from the Arab states and relations with its Islamic allies.
Iqbal Siddiqui publishes a personal blog, A Sceptical Islamist.