In recent days Egypt has been disclosing details about uncovering a major Hezbollah espionage ring on its soil. AP cites a cabinet minister saying 25 of its 49 members have been arrested so far. The arrests began back in November, but the disclosures have started only now.
The leader of the espionage ring—who is among those detained—was a Hezbollah agent named Sami Shehab, and the group he recruited included Lebanese, Syrians, Sudanese, and Palestinians along with 12 Egyptian Shiites. Not surprisingly, they planned attacks on Israeli vacationers in the Sinai, apparently as revenge for the February 2008 killing of Hezbollah mastermind Imad Moughniyeh, as well as smuggling of Iranian weapons into Gaza.
But the group had grander ambitions. With Egypt’s octogenarian leader Hosni Mubarak in questionable health and his succession unclear, the ring planned to set up a terror infrastructure throughout the country while spreading Shiite ideology. They also aimed to buy a boat that would smuggle weapons into Egypt from Yemen, Sudan, and Somalia.
Or as Zvi Mazel, a former Israeli ambassador to Egypt, puts it, “the aim was to destabilize the country and provoke huge demonstrations that could bring down the regime and lead to a military coup.”
Members of the ring also rented villas near the Israeli embassy in Cairo and in the town of Suez overlooking the Suez Canal—the latter for purposes of monitoring traffic and even, according to reports, attacking American or Israeli vessels in the canal.
Although the Egyptian opposition, prominent among them the Muslim Brotherhood, have sprung to the espionage ring’s defense, more mainstream figures have condemned it bitterly and particularly Lebanese-based Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah for dispatching it, with some calling for his arrest. Nasrallah has replied by admitting responsibility for the group but claiming it was only intended to help Palestinians in Gaza.
His Egyptian accusers, though, don’t buy it, and an editorial in the state-controlled al-Gomhouria called Nasrallah “a Monkey Sheikh…a bandit and veteran criminal who killed your countrymen, but we will not allow you to threaten the security and safety of Egypt...and if you threaten its sovereignty, you will burn!...I say to you what every Egyptian knows, that you are an Iranian party. Are there instructions from Iran to drag Egypt into a conflict?”
Yet, according to Israeli experts, the ring was only the tip of the iceberg.
One of them, Lt.-Col. Moshe Marzouk of the International Institute for Counter-Terrorism at the Herzliya Interdisciplinary Center, told Israel’s largest daily, Yediot Aharonot, that “Other cells operate in Egypt. The one that was uncovered is neither the first nor the last…. Egypt’s territory has become no man’s land for the smuggling of money, weapons and terror cells….”
Marzouk is cited as believing that “the Iranian grip on Egypt was rooted so deeply that it was doubtful that Mubarak’s regime would be able to confront it,” and as saying directly that “The terror network is just part of the second stage of the Islamic revolution, whose goal is not only to take over Iran like in Khomeini’s days, but also to export the revolution to the Muslim countries of the region” and “help topple the Sunni regimes.”
The remaining question is the timing. If Egypt uncovered the plotters back in November, why has it waited till now to publicize it?
The answer seems to lie in Mazel’s observation that, “Meanwhile, there is a new player on the scene. U.S. President Barack Obama has started a dialogue with Syria and is about to begin one with Iran.”
Mazel adds: “Egypt and the pragmatic camp are not too happy about that development, though they will not admit it publicly; they would rather see Israel and the U.S. bomb Iran and do away with the Iranian threat, since they know very well it will not be removed by diplomacy.”
The question is whether Obama is listening, and can absorb—before it’s too late—the facts that: the obsessively-pursued Palestinian issue is not central to the relatively geopolitically pro-Western Arab states in the region like Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and smaller Gulf states; instead they’re much more concerned about the push for hegemony by Iran and its allies Syria, Hezbollah, Hamas, and others, and know that this camp cannot be deflected from its designs with professions of friendship and “respect.”