(CNSNews.com) – Relations between Egypt and Hezbollah, already strained over Cairo’s stance during Israel’s military campaign in Gaza last winter, have hit rock-bottom over allegations that a recently uncovered Hezbollah sleeper cell planned to attack Egyptian institutions and Israeli tourists.
A bitter public row, played out in Arab media, comes amid growing concern in Egypt about Iranian muscle-flexing and rising regional influence. Egypt is a traditional U.S. ally.
Hezbollah, a Shi’ite group set up by Tehran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps in the early 1980s, is viewed by many Arabs as an extension of Iran’s influence in Lebanon. Today it heads Lebanon’s parliamentary opposition and, together with its allies, is predicted to do well in June elections.
Egyptian officials announced last week that over recent months the government had uncovered a Hezbollah cell planning attacks against Egyptian and Israeli targets. It said the cell also aimed to recruit members for Hezbollah and described it as part of a plot to spread Shia thought in Egypt.
It claimed to be holding more than 40 suspects and said it was hunting others.
The state-owned Egyptian daily Al-Ahram said the cell members had been planning to attack resorts in Sinai frequented by Israeli tourists. (The Israeli government last week instructed citizens to avoid the Sinai and told those already there to leave immediately, citing security threats.)
Egyptian media also cited officials as saying that the cell planned to attack ships using the Suez Canal. The key waterway is one of the country’s main sources of foreign revenue.
In a lengthy address delivered on Hezbollah’s al-Manar television station on Friday, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah denied Egypt’s allegations.
But he did confirm that one of the detained men was a member of Hezbollah, who had been helping to “transfer equipment and personnel” to what Nasrallah called “our brothers in Hamas.”
“If helping our Palestinian brothers, the rightful owners of the land which is occupied and besieged, who are being killed, displaced, criminally starved is a crime, then today I formally admit to this crime,” he said. “We are proud and dignified by such an accusation.”
‘Disappointment and failure’
Nasrallah is a popular figure among many Arabs, and images of the black-turbaned cleric frequently feature in anti-Israel protests across the Middle East.
Invoking its war with Israel in 2006 – a conflict Hezbollah says it won – the Shi’ite group portrays itself as the vanguard of the wider Islamic campaign against the Jewish state.
In his al-Manar speech, Nasrallah said Hezbollah did not intervene in the internal affairs of any country in the Arab or Muslim world. Its hostility was aimed only at Israel, “whose existence we believe is evil, cancerous, aggressive, illegal and illegitimate.” Hostility also existed between Hezbollah and the U.S. “due to its policies,” he said, adding, “should it modify its policies this hostility would cease.”
Nasrallah suggested that Egypt is making the accusations because it is unhappy about its own declining influence.
He noted that President Obama had chosen Turkey as his first destination in the Islamic world and planned to “give a role to the Turks” in Mideast peacemaking. Egypt has traditionally had that role.
Nasrallah said the Egyptian government was facing “disappointment and failure … regionally and internationally,” but should not try to make Hezbollah a scapegoat.
Iran’s parliamentary speaker, Ali Larijani, accused Egypt of trying to divert attention away from the Palestinian issue. He also linked the episode to the forthcoming Lebanese election, suggesting Egypt was trying to undermine Hezbollah’s popularity.
Both Hezbollah and Iran were highly critical of Egypt during Israel’s offensive against Hamas in December and January, angered by Cairo’s refusal to open a crossing point along its border with Gaza.
While Hamas enjoys support from Iran – notwithstanding their respective Sunni and Shi’ite identities – the Egyptian government is the main Arab supporter of Hamas’ Palestinian rival, Mahmoud Abbas’ Fatah.
Egypt, whose relations with Iran have been cool since the Islamic revolution, suspects Tehran of using its proxies in Lebanon and Gaza to stoke trouble that could destabilize Egypt itself.
President Hosni Mubarak, who came to power after Islamists assassinated his predecessor in 1981, has for years sought to suppress the Muslim Brotherhood, the opposition group which spawned Hamas in Gaza in 1987.
Many of those detained by Egypt in the “Hezbollah cell” case are reportedly aligned with the Muslim Brotherhood.
Tariq Alhomayed, editor-in-chief of the pan-Arab daily Asharq Al-Awsat, wrote in the paper Wednesday that it was instructive to see which groups were coming to Hezbollah’s defense following Cairo’s accusations.
“The answer is simple and does not require excessive intelligence or guess-work,” he said. “Hezbollah’s defenders are Syria, Iran, Hamas, and the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood organization, this is the same quarter that has ignited every crisis that occurs between Arab countries.”