The latest exchange of blows in the ongoing feud between Egypt and Lebanon’s Hizbullah came on April 28, as the Egyptian State Security Court convicted and sentenced 26 individuals who Cairo accuses of being part of an active Hizbullah cell in Egypt. Authorities claim the suspects operated on Egyptian soil in late 2008 before their detention between December 2008 and January 2009.
The announcement of the verdict marked the end of an eight month-long trial characterized by incessant controversy and political intrigue. Egyptian authorities accused the suspects of a host of charges ranging from conducting intelligence activities on ships traversing the Suez Canal to plotting attacks against Sinai tourist resorts popular with Israelis in Sinai. The alleged cell members are also accused of possessing arms and explosives and smuggling weapons and fighters into Israeli-occupied Gaza, where Egypt helps to enforce Israel’s economic and travel blockade of the territory (al-Jazeera, April 28; al-Masry al-Youm [Cairo], April 28). The case, which continues to arouse strong emotions inside Egypt and the wider region, marks the first time Egypt has prosecuted alleged members of Hizbullah. The trial also showcased an underlying subtext behind the dynamics shaping some of the most important trends in Middle East politics today.
The alleged members of the cell, which included Lebanese, Palestinians, Egyptians, and Sudanese, were sentenced to prison terms ranging from six months to life; four of the suspects who remain on the run were tried and sentenced in absentia, with three of them receiving life sentences. According to the defendants and their defense team, Egyptian State Security authorities extracted false confessions through torture and other threatening methods (al-Masry al-Youm, November 22, 2009). Because the trial took place in the State Security Court—an institution founded under the emergency laws set in place following the assassination of Egyptian president Anwar Sadat in 1981—there was no option for the defendants to seek a higher appeal, as the only remaining recourse is a presidential pardon (al-Jazeera, April 28).
Hizbullah has been remarkably forthright in admitting to having deployed operatives to Egypt. Specifically, Hizbullah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah acknowledged that Muhammad Yusuf Mansur Ahmad (a.k.a. Sami Shehab), the lone Lebanese suspect in Egyptian custody, is a member of Hizbullah. “Our brother Sami is a member of Hizbullah, we do not deny this…” (al-Manar [Beirut], April 10, 2009). During the trial’s initial hearings, one of the defendants is reported to have shouted in the courtroom, “We are at your command Nasrallah” (Menassat [Beirut], August 24, 2009). At the same time, Hizbullah scoffed at Cairo’s charge that it had any intention of targeting or inflicting harm on Egypt; Hizbullah maintains that it was and is concerned solely with supporting the Palestinians in Gaza. Hizbullah also disputes Egypt’s allegations that Shehab was part of a 26-man team, insisting that no more than ten others assisted Shehab in his activities (Reuters, April 28).
Hizbullah Answers the Charges
The announcement of the trial’s verdict elicited a bold and defiant response from Hizbullah. Branding the Egyptian court’s decision as “unjust” and “political,” Nasrallah reaffirmed the group’s support for the prisoners and its determination to support the Palestinian resistance against Israeli occupation. “Our brothers are honest mujahideen, not terrorists as they were described by the court…Since when is helping the Palestinians in Gaza a crime?” (al-Masry al-Youm, April 29). In a statement directed to the prisoners, Nasrallah lavished praised on what he described as their commitment to supporting the Palestinian cause, saying, “You were prepared to face death for the Palestinian cause and should wear these sentences as a badge of honor” (al-Masry al-Youm, April 29).
A Hizbullah delegation to the family of Sami Shehab led by Sayyed Ibrahim Amin al-Sayyed, the head of Hizbullah’s political council, rebuffed Cairo’s assertion that Hizbullah posed a threat to Egypt’s security and stability, stating that Shehab and the other prisoners were “fulfilling the duty of supporting the oppressed Palestinian people and their brave resistance in the besieged Gaza Strip (Al-Manar, April 29; see Terrorism Monitor, April 10, 2009).
Egypt Lashes Back
The ensuing war of words between the prosecution and defense teams escalated steadily throughout the trial. Since the initial arrest of the defendants, the prosecution—bolstered by official statements out of Cairo and the diligent efforts of official and semi-official media outlets—painted a picture of Hizbullah as an enemy of Egypt. Media outlets closely tied to the regime went so far as to label Nasrallah “the monkey shaykh” and described Hizbullah as “the devil’s party.” Other venues attempted to link the group to Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, the moderate, democratic reform-minded movement that represents the strongest opposition to the authoritarian regime (Menassat, May 5, 2009).
Prior to handing down his sentences, presiding judge Adel Abdel Salam Gomaa asked, “Does supporting the Palestinian resistance include collecting information on Egyptian [interests] in the governorates of North and South Sinai, pinpointing tourist resorts [for attack], renting property overlooking the Suez Canal, making explosives and keeping them with [one of the defendants] in the governorate of North Sinai?". The judge added that the defendants sought to hurt the Egyptian economy and to destabilize the country (al-Masry al-Youm, April 28). The prosecution repeated the regime’s longstanding argument based on the “Shi’a crescent” thesis that the actions of the defendants were part of Iranian designs aimed at undermining Egypt and controlling the Middle East, a theme repeated by Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. “We will not allow any interference by foreign forces [i.e. Iran] . . . who push the region towards hell out of a desire to spread their influence and their agenda on the Arab world" (Menassat, May 5, 2009).
The especially strong language coming out of Egyptian officialdom is a form of reprisal against Hizbullah for the latter’s rhetoric targeting Egypt’s stance during Israel’s invasion of Gaza in December 2008, namely Egypt’s decision to seal the border between Gaza and Sinai to prevent an influx of refugees escaping the bombardment and to block the flow of humanitarian aid. Nasrallah castigated Egypt for collaborating with Israel and called on Egyptians to rise up against the regime in a show of solidarity with the Palestinians. “Let the Egyptian people take to the streets in millions. Can the Egyptian police arrest millions of Egyptians? No! They cannot” (Press TV [Tehran], December 30, 2008). Nasrallah even addressed “the officers and soldiers of the Egyptian armed forces, who are still proud of their Arab roots and continue to oppose Zionism”:
"I am not calling for a coup in Egypt, and I am in no position to call for one. But I am calling for generals and officers to ask their political leadership whether it is their devotion to the military, the responsibilities entrusted in them and their rows of medals that prompt them to guard Israeli borders while watching our own people being slaughtered in Gaza?” (Press TV, December 30, 2008)."
Playing on Egypt’s Shame
Led by Muhammad Salim al-Awwa, an attorney who also serves as the secretary general of the International Union of Islamic Scholars (IUMS), the defense team built its case based on the premise that the entire trial was essentially a political show by drawing heavily from examples of Egypt’s history of resistance to foreign occupation and support for national liberation movements in the Arab world and beyond. Al-Awwa emphasized that under the rule of President Gamal Abdel Nasser, the Egyptian intelligence services had established the Arab World Unit, a department charged with providing national liberation movements in countries such as Algeria and revolutionary movements across Africa and the Middle East with arms, financing and political support.
The defendants, according to al-Awwa, were only acting in the tradition of Egypt’s once proud sense of revolutionary spirit and commitment to defending the oppressed in Palestine and beyond (Al-Ahram Weekly [Cairo], February 25 – March 3). Al-Awwa refuted charges that Hizbullah was targeting Egypt. “[Hizbullah] is not a secret and illegal organization that seeks to destabilize Egypt.” Al-Awaa quoted Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri, a close Egyptian and American ally, on Hizbullah’s role in Lebanon as a “political partner and a political force” (Al-Ahram Weekly, February 25 –March 3). The defense added that armed resistance is permitted against occupation under international law and that as a party to a variety of international and pan-Arab legal charters, Egypt is essentially failing to live up to its commitments. To further support his assertion that Cairo’s position toward the defendants amounts to little more than a show trial as opposed to a case based on sound legal or national security grounds, al-Awwa cited statements issued by Mubarak critical of Israel’s occupation of Gaza and the West Bank as well as Mubarak’s recognition that armed resistance under these circumstances is legitimate (Al-Ahram Weekly, February 25 –March 3).
The New Middle East Cold War
To understand the implications of this war of words between Egypt and Hizbullah, a brief look at the recent history of the region is in order. The influence of the brand of pan-Arab nationalism promoted by Nasser (“Nasserism”) reached its height between the mid-1950s and 1967 as a bitter rivalry developed between Egypt and advocates of the status quo in the Middle East, led by Saudi Arabia and other conservative, pro-Western monarchies. This period is often referred to as the “Arab Cold War.”  Powerful rhetoric, proxy wars, insurgencies, terrorism, coups, and counter-coups characterized the politics of the day. As the de facto leader of the resistance faction in the region, Egypt actively supported revolutionary campaigns across the Middle East under the banners of popular struggle and resistance typical of anti-colonial movements of the day. In this context, undermining Saudi influence was critical to furthering Arab nationalist goals due to the Kingdom’s strong links to foreign powers, including the United States and the former colonial powers. Today, many observers point to a new Middle East Cold War paradigm, essentially an expanded version of previous rivalries between competing power blocs that feature a host of new players. Egypt, this time as a member of the pro-U.S. status quo camp, along with fellow U.S. allies Saudi Arabia, Jordan, other pro-U.S. Arab regimes and Israel, stands against the so-called “Resistance” faction led by Iran, Syria, Lebanon’s Hizbullah, and Hamas. Depending on the politics of the day, Turkey and Qatar (through its al-Jazeera news network) may navigate a fine line between both factions.
Given this background, Egypt’s predicament is that Egyptians tend to identify strongly with the resistance camp, despite Egypt’s alliance with the United States and cooperation with Israel. Cairo is vulnerable to internal criticism and perceives Iranian and Hizbullah attacks against its positions on the regional and global stage as a serious threat, especially in their potential to embolden domestic political opposition among groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood and other dissenting factions in Egyptian society.
1. The term was coined by Malcolm Kerr. For more background on this critical period in modern Middle Eastern history, see Malcolm Kerr, The Arab Cold War: Gamal ‘Abd Al-Nasir and His Rivals, 1958-1970 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1971).