By Gamal A. G. Soltan
The current tension between Egypt and Hizbullah is a crisis that has been waiting to happen for years. The causes of tension between the two sides are multifaceted. This is a conflict between nationalism and supra-nationalism, between Egypt and Iran, between moderation and radicalism, between Sunnis and Shiites and between status quo and revisionist forces in the Middle East. Hizbullah’s ideology, its nature as a non-state armed actor and its strong alliance with Iran are sufficient to generate heavy doubts and concerns among mainstream Arab states regarding the movement.

Until the year 2000, Hizbullah’s dedication to the mission of ending Israeli occupation in southern Lebanon helped offset these concerns. But since the unilateral Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon in May of that year, apprehension has been rising regarding the possibility that Hizbullah is redirecting its capabilities toward further destabilization of the region.

Hizbullah interference in other countries’ internal affairs was bound to happen. Hizbullah successfully established itself as a Lebanese national resistance movement during the Israeli occupation of southern Lebanon. As such, it was able to conceal the other dimensions integral to its identity. The ideology of Hizbullah commits the party to the goals and strategies of the revolutionary Islamic movement: transforming the nature of Middle East political systems and societies and the liberation of all of Palestine.

Ironically, the Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon in 2000 was at the same time Hizbullah’s greatest achievement and the development that denied the party the capacity to further conceal its supra-national identity. The partial stabilization of the situation in southern Lebanon in the aftermath of the 2006 conflict made a new Hizbullah adventure across the Lebanese-Israeli border unlikely. Hizbullah had to find other venues for demonstrating its hard-line anti-Israel stand. It was Gaza that gave the party a new opportunity to maintain its anti-Israel credentials.

The extra-territorial revolutionary forces of Islamism have gained tremendous influence in the past few years. The many mistakes committed by the United States in the post 9/11 period granted revolutionary Islamism a golden opportunity to advance its popularity among the peoples of the Middle East. Moreover, US policy has been instrumental in granting Iran precious opportunities to further its influence in the region. The combined power of radical Islamism and the state of Iran expose moderates in the Middle East to tremendous pressure.

The current Hizbullah-Egypt affair should be perceived within this context. Egypt, like any other state, cannot tolerate the encroachment of either a foreign government or a non-state armed actor on its sovereignty and national security. The strong Egyptian reaction to the arrest of Hizbullah’s operatives in Egypt, however, indicates that Egypt’s concerns and objectives go beyond the mere elimination of the illegal ring of Hizbullah’s operatives. Egypt is apparently turning this incident into an opportunity to convict Hizbullah of committing the capital crime of tampering with the national security of a neighboring state.


Radical revisionist forces in the Middle East have been able during the past couple of years to obfuscate the distinction between their national and supra-national goals. Claims have been made by radicals that the security and interests of Middle East peoples and states are not to be put at risk as a result of the radical policies pursued in places such as Gaza and Lebanon. Legitimate sympathy with the plight of the Palestinians at the time of a failing Middle East peace process has allowed radicals the opportunity to market their claims region-wide. Yet the ring of Hizbullah’s operatives shut down in Egypt and the kinds of activities they plotted on Egyptian soil demonstrate the risks posed to states’ national security by these same radical tactics and policies, alongside the inherent conflicts between rival orientations in Middle East politics.

Egypt’s strategy in handling the Hizbullah ring it captured seeks the achievement of a number of goals. On the domestic level, there is an attempt to capitalize on the incident to win back the support of segments of the Egyptian public that were lost to radical propaganda during the past few years. The Hizbullah case lends itself to the mobilization of the Egyptian sense of national identity that had been overwhelmed by strong waves of Arabism and Islamism. The recent conflict in Gaza, in particular, was successfully employed by radicals to advance their supra-national cause. Winning the Egyptian public back to Egyptian nationalism is instrumental as a legitimating strategy and as a safeguard against further trespassing by radical regional forces against Egyptian security and interests.

Egypt’s escalated reaction against Hizbullah is designed to deter the revolutionary pro-Iran party from further encroaching on its interests. It provoked Iranian officials to come to the rescue of their valuable ally: the harsh words exchanged between Iranian and Egyptian officials reveal the regional dimension of the incident. Egypt is interested in mobilizing the moderate Arab states against this Iranian and radical influence.

Egypt also seeks to contribute to stability by containing conflicts between radicals and moderates region-wide. Yet it is not satisfied with the terms of the nascent reconciliation between radicals and moderates in the Arab world. In particular Egypt, which was strongly targeted by the inflammatory radical propaganda of Hizbullah, Syria and Iran as they sought to mobilize the Egyptian public against its government and regime during the Gaza conflict, will not subscribe to a reconciliation that allows the radical forces to continue enjoying the same freedom of action as before.


Gamal A. G. Soltan is a senior research fellow in Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies in Cairo and a visiting professor of political science at the American University in Cairo. This commentary first appeared at, an online newsletter