Thursday 16 April 2009

Egypt and Hezbollah

The recent military action by Egypt against Hezbollah cells in Egypt has come as something of a surprise to many people. This is especially true when considering the comments published by Cairo's official state media calling Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah a "monkey Sheik". There are those amongst us who view the Arab world as a single autonomous group. But, with a population numbering approximately 350 million and covering a region that includes the Gulf, the Middle East and North Africa, the Arab world is a highly fractured collection of people. The actions by Egypt against Hezbollah represent another chapter in an ongoing saga of Arab disunity stretching back many years.

The Arab world is considered to include those people who originate from the Arabian peninsula and who speak Arabic. This is distinct from the Islamic world (people who follow Islam as a religion), where Arabic is part of the people's culture rather than the vernacular. So, despite having a population of approximately 70 million Muslims and its geographical proximity to Arab countries, Iran is not part of the Arab world. Iran's population is largely of Persian ancestry, and the official language of the country is Farsi. Despite Iran not being part of the Arab world, it does have a significant influence on events in the Arab world.

Conflicts between Arab peoples and nations have traditionally been caused by cracks along religious, political, geographical and commercial lines. In religious terms, the Islamic world is divided between Sunni and Shiite Muslims. Of the 1.2 billion Muslims worldwide, approximately 80-85% are Sunni Muslims. Large numbers of Shiite Muslims are found in Iraq and Iran. Iran's ruling Ayatollahs are Shiite Muslims, as are about 90% of the Muslims in Iran. The Sunni-Shiite divide is a conflict which dates back to the 7th century. Shiites believe that the Prophet Muhammad's daughter Fatima and son-in-law Ali were denied their divinely ordained leadership role to succeed her father. This injustice still forms the basis of their faith and writings. The focus of conflicts between the two sects has largely played itself out in Iraq and Lebanon, countries with significant populations of both Sunnis and Shiites. Iraq's population is 60-65% Shiite, but was under the rule of Sunni Muslims for significant periods of time. Lebanon has an almost equal split of Sunni, Shiite and Christians across its population with a resulting battle for supremacy. Conflicts have also arisen in Sunni-dominated Saudi Arabia where Shiites were often treated as infidels.

There seems to be a growing fear amongst Sunni Muslims that there is a greater level of aggression arising from Shiites, which is perceived to be accompanied by an attempt to convert Sunnis to Shiism. This perception may be fuelled to some degree by changes in the political balance of power across the region. Saddam Hussein, a Sunni, was deposed by the USA, giving rise to a Shiite government in Iraq. Iran's political strength, together with the Shiite influence, is on the ascent. Hezbollah, a Shiite group backed by Iran also finds itself in a more prominent position following the successes of its 2006 war against Israel. So, the Shiite minority is gaining in prominence and political strength across the Islamic world.

Egypt is the Arab world's largest Sunni Muslim country. Approximately 90% of its 80 million inhabitants are Sunni Muslims. Egypt has enjoyed a precarious relationship with other countries in the Arab world following certain controversial political actions on its part. In particular, Egypt's decision to sign a peace agreement with Israel and its decision to host the Shah of Iran after he fled Tehran during the 1976 Iranian Revolution have brought it into conflict with its colleagues in the Arab world. It has also brought Egypt into conflict with the Islamic Republic of Iran that arose following the overthrow of the Shah. Egyptian President Anwar Sadat was assassinated in 1981 for his role in securing a peace agreement with Israel. The fact that only one Arab head of state (Sudan) attended his funeral, demonstrated the contempt with which he was regarded by the Arab world.

Hezbollah and Hamas, a Sunni Muslim organisation, appear unlikely friends except for their common enemy, Israel. The hate of this common enemy has been sufficient to create strong cooperation between the two organisations. This cooperation stretches to Iran by definition in its role as Hezbollah's benefactor, and this has created the imperative to open a route via Egypt to ship weapons into Hamas' Gaza stronghold. This has been done without any due consideration to Egypt on the part of Hezbollah and Iran. In fact, they would have no qualms in undermining Egyptian sovereignty where possible given the contempt with which Egypt is still generally regarded in the Arab world. This action has led to Egypt's military response to Hezbollah's activities on its soil. It is this contempt that has caused Hezbollah to admit openly to its operations on Egyptian soil in attempt to embarrass Egypt.

A number of articles have been written hailing the Egyptian actions as being "in the best interests of Israel". Whilst this may indeed be a by-product of Egypt's response to Hezbollah, let us not fool ourselves for one minute into believing that they were acting in Israel's defence. Each entity involved is acting in its own best interests only. Israel would be best advised, as always, to keep a careful watch on developments lest they give Egypt reason to act in a way that may not benefit Israel.

The above background is an attempt to put Egypt's response against Hezbollah into context, and to briefly touch upon the complex subject of inter-Arab relations. Continuing disunity in the Arab world was recently reinforced when Libyan President Muammar Gaddafi went on a tirade against the Saudi king at an Arab League meeting in Qatar. He was criticising the Saudi king's strong links to western countries. Although the two were reportedly later reconciled, the fractured nature of the Arab world is unlikely to be healed any time soon.

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