Thursday, April 23, 2009

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates | Egypt’s arrest of purported Hezbollah operatives marks a dangerous escalation of tension between Iran and the Arab world, analysts say.

Egypt’s public prosecutor is investigating 49 people it claims planned to carry out “hostile operations” on orders from Hezbollah, the militant Islamist group in Southern Lebanon that bested Israel in a monthlong war in the summer of 2006.

The case against the purported Hezbollah cell in Egypt “sums up all the region’s issues together,” Egyptian analyst Nabeel Sharaf al-Deen told The Washington Times.

“These issues include the Arab-Iranian differences, the concerns between Sunnis and Shi’ites, the relation between religion and politics and the political differences which reached the point of polarization between the moderate and [extremist] camps,” Mr. al-Deen said.

Egyptian security officials said earlier this month that 25 members of a Hezbollah cell had been arrested and that another 24 remain at large.

Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit accused Hezbollah, which is supported by both Iran and Syria, of engaging in “dangerous” activities “to harm Egypt’s interests and twist its policy.”

“The issue is much bigger than Hezbollah,” Mr. Aboul Gheit said in a statement carried by the Middle East News Agency (MENA) the Egyptian official news agency.

In other statements, he has accused Iran of using Hezbollah to gain foothold in Egypt.

Hezbollah’s chief Sheik Hassan Nasrallah denies the charge of plotting to carry out attacks against Egypt or on Egyptian soil.

However, he confirmed that one of those arrested - identified as Sami Shehab, whose real name was later disclosed as Mustafa Mansour - was a Hezbollah agent tasked with smuggling weapons to Palestinians in the Gaza Strip.

While investigations with the arrested group are still ongoing, it is not clear when the prosecution will issue the indictment, said Muntaser al-Zayat, defense lawyer for several of those arrested.

“But I expect this to be in the next [few] days,” he told The Washington Times.

The leading suspect in the arrested group, Mr. Shehab, could face the death penalty if found guilty of the suspected offenses, mainly threatening Egypt’s security, Mr. Zayat said.

Among the suspected offenses are monitoring Israelis visiting Egypt and the movement of ships entering the Suez Canal, he said.

“What I have heard from [the arrested] is that they have not been subjected to anything,” he replied, in response when asked whether the suspects had been tortured. “But their situation and being arrested by security forces for nearly six months reflects a difficult humanitarian situation,” he added.

Following the Egyptian announcement that it had uncovered the cell, both Cairo and Hezbollah traded charges, and Iran - which is not an Arab country - also rejected the accusations.

Moreover, Iranian analysts said Egyptian security has fallen in a “trap of misleading information” as a result of a previous American-Israeli agreement calling on Cairo to end weapons smuggling to Gaza.

Lebanese columnist Hazem Sagyieh said Iranian influence has reached many Arab countries.

“The issue of Sunnis and Shi’ites should be cooled down and not ignited” among Arabs, Mr. Sagyieh told The Times. “It is a danger thing for the Arabs,” he said, explaining that Arabs include both Sunnis and Shi’ites and that any tension between them will lead to Arabs paying the price. Iran is predominantly Shi’ite.

Egypt is one Arab country that has expressed its concerns over the increasing influence of Iran in many Arab issues, including the Lebanese, the Iraqis and the Palestinians.

Relations between Egypt and Iran have been tense for months. There are no diplomatic relations between Cairo and Tehran; diplomatic relations were cut a year after the 1979 Islamic revolution in Iran.

On the other hand, Hezbollah’s deputy chief, Sheik Naeem Qassem described Cairo’s charges as “political slander.”

Sheik Qassem further described the charges as “claims without any proof as part of a political decision to launch a campaign against Hezbollah” and “taking revenge from Hezbollah because of its positions during the [Israeli] aggression against Gaza and its calls to open Rafah crossing border.” He was referring to Israel’s invasion of Gaza earlier this year to halt Palestinian rocket fire at Jewish cities.

Tensions between Hezbollah - which supports the Palestinian militant group Hamas - and Egypt started brewing when Hezbollah’s Sheik Nasrallah criticized Egypt for closing the border with Gaza during the recent war.

Meanwhile, analysts believe it is difficult to predict the fate of the mediation efforts of some parties, including Arab countries, to ease the tensions over the Hezbollah cell.

Egypt says its problems with Hezbollah are a “judicial and security issue,” not a political dispute in which settlements can be reached through negotiations.

At the same time, many analysts believe the case will not reach the point where the names of Hezbollah top leaders will be included in an indictment.

Egypt “will not embarrass the Lebanese state, which has good relations with Cairo,” said Lebanese analyst Wadah Sharaeh.

Furthermore, the issue is unlikely to sour the Egyptian-Lebanese relations because the central government in Beirut is not a strong supporter of Hezbollah, which maintains its own army.

• Jumana al-Tamimi is associate editor at the Gulf News newspaper, published in Dubai.

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