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Egyptian Shift on Hezbollah Reflects New Geopolitical Realities in the Middle East

Publisher Jamestown Foundation
Publication Date 7 February 2013
Citation / Document Symbol Terrorism Monitor Volume: 11 Issue: 3
Cite as Jamestown Foundation, Egyptian Shift on Hezbollah Reflects New Geopolitical Realities in the Middle East, 7 February 2013, Terrorism Monitor Volume: 11 Issue: 3, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/51260c372.html [accessed 28 November 2014]
Comments Chris Zambelis
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

The course of Egyptian politics and society in the post-revolution era hangs in the balance between stability and chaos. With a democratic transition process mired in turbulence and violence, observers of Egyptian affairs remain fixated on the internecine competition between rival and overlapping factions – liberal, secular, leftist and Islamist – angling to challenge the fledgling Freedom and Justice Party (FJP)-led government of President Muhammad Mursi and its Muslim Brotherhood progenitor. Lost amid the caustic rhetoric and heated street battles are indications that a significant shift is afoot related to Egypt's foreign policy toward Hezbollah in Lebanon. 

The fall of Hosni Mubarak has raised a number of questions regarding the future of Egyptian foreign policy. An avowed strategic ally of the United States and a quiet friend of Israel, the Mubarak regime had served as a mainstay of a regional alliance system shepherded by Washington. Despite popular opposition to its foreign policy orientation, Mubarak's Egypt toed the U.S. and Israeli lines with respect to Hezbollah, which was regarded as an enemy of Egypt that needed to be contained and defeated.

In a December, 2012 interview, Egyptian ambassador to Lebanon Ashraf Hamdy revealed that Cairo was eager to engage with Hezbollah. Referring to it as a "real political and military force" in Lebanon, Hamdy's words portend a marked departure in Egyptian foreign policy. Hamdy also acknowledged the indispensability of engaging Hezbollah due to its preeminent position in Lebanon: "You cannot discuss politics in Lebanon without having a relationship with Hezbollah" (Daily Star [Beirut], December 29, 2012).

While alluding indirectly to Hezbollah's international reach and foreign relationships, namely its alliances with Iran and Syria – its partners in the Axis of Resistance – the Egyptian ambassador called on the group to act within the confines of Lebanon and Lebanese national interests as opposed to what he referred to as the interests of "others." At the same time, Hamdy recognized the legitimacy of Hezbollah's role as a resistance force in defense of Lebanon against Israel: "Resistance in the sense of defending Lebanese territory … That's their primary role. We think that as a resistance movement they have done a good job to keep on defending Lebanese territory and trying to regain land occupied by Israel is legal and legitimate." While refuting allegations that a Hezbollah delegation travelled to Egypt for talks, Hamdy did confirm meeting with representatives of the group in Lebanon (Daily Star, December 29). The diplomatic praise and respect for Hezbollah coming from Egyptian officialdom today stands in stark contrast to the hostile language reserved for the group in the Mubarak regime.

Following the 2009 arrest of Hezbollah operatives by Egyptian authorities who were allegedly dispatched to Egypt to lend support to the Palestinians in Gaza, media outlets closely tied to the Mubarak regime referred to Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah as the "monkey shaykh," and described the group as the "Devil's Party." 

Hezbollah was always treated as an appendage of Iran, a longtime foe of the Mubarak regime. For its part, Hezbollah responded by defending its record in defense of the Palestinians while admonishing Egypt's abandonment of the revolutionary and pan-Arab nationalist ideals it once advocated during the tenure of President Gamal Abd al-Nasser (see Terrorism Monitor, May 28, 2010).

The factors underlying the FJP's apparent rapprochement with Hezbollah must be considered in their ideological, diplomatic, and geopolitical contexts. The FJP expressed early on its commitment to forge a new path for Egypt in the international arena. Much of the attention surrounding the motivations behind the uprising that overthrew Mubarak in 2011 emphasized the domestic grievances and hardships endured by the Egyptian public. The widespread discontent felt toward a despotic and corrupt regime that failed to meet the most basic demands of Egyptians cannot, however, be disentangled from the popular disapproval of Egypt's international posture under Mubarak. 

During the uprising, anger over Egypt's perceived complicity in advancing U.S. and Israeli regional aims figured prominently, especially in regards to the preservation of Israel's occupation of Palestinian land and Cairo's participation in the Camp David peace accords, which was widely seen as coming at the expense of Egyptian, pan-Arab, and Islamic interests. In this regard, the FJP's foreign policy platform contains numerous references to its intention to reassess Egypt's approach to foreign policy. This includes restoring Egypt's prestige as an influential actor in regional and international affairs and advocate of Palestinian self-determination. [1]

To help promote these aims, Egypt has declared its determination to reach out to a broad array of actors, a point emphasized by Hamdy in Beirut: "We are stretching our hand out in the proper, balanced way to all regional powers" (Daily Star, December 29, 2012). From an ideological perspective, Egypt's engagement of Hezbollah signifies an attempt on the part of Cairo to reassert its independence and freedom of maneuver in international affairs.  Because Hezbollah enjoys legitimacy amongst a wide segment of Egyptian society, engaging the group bolsters the FJP's claim to have discarded key facets of Egypt's Mubarak-era foreign policy. In a related move, Egypt's careful opening toward Iran under the FJP also reflects a new outlook on foreign affairs in Cairo (al-Masry al-Youm [Cairo], January 23).

Determined to shape Egypt's behavior in ways amenable to their respective interests, the United States, Saudi Arabia and Qatar in particular have each used economic aid and other levers in varying degrees to pressure Egypt to remain within the parameters that governed their relations in previous years. Egypt's dire economic predicament and domestic instability have left it vulnerable to economic and other forms of diplomatic pressure. In spite of these obstacles, Egypt has nevertheless been able to leverage its geopolitical weight to forge ahead with its goal of diversifying its foreign relations. This includes engaging previous enemies such as Hezbollah and Iran on its own terms while at the same time maintaining ties with the United States, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Israel as it sees fit. The turmoil in Syria is also weighing heavily on Egypt's geopolitical calculus. Egypt continues to lend moral and diplomatic support to the Syrian opposition in its struggle against the Ba'athist regime, but also remains vocally opposed to any sort of foreign military intervention in Syria (al-Hayat, January 23). Just as important, Egypt's stance on the crisis in Syria has not impeded its efforts to engage with Hezbollah and Iran, the strongest advocates of the Ba'athist regime.  

Copyright notice: © 2010 The Jamestown Foundation

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