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Egypt strikes out at Iran's expanding reach

Egyptian police have arrested 25 suspects and are hunting for another 24 in the Sinai peninsula, where officials say the Iranian-sponsored group Hezbollah was operating a covert cell.

By Liam StackCorrespondent, Correspondent / April 15, 2009



Cairo; and Beirut, Lebanon

Spurred by fears of Iranian meddling and an intensifying struggle for regional dominance, Egypt has cracked down on a covert cell within its borders that it says is run by the Iranian-sponsored group Hezbollah.

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In the last week, Egyptian police have arrested 25 suspects, 13 of whom have been charged with espionage and illegal possession of weapons and explosives. A manhunt is under way for 24 more suspects believed to be hiding in the Sinai peninsula's mountainous interior.

In an unusual admission, Hezbollah chief Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah acknowledged in a speech last Friday that one of the men in Egyptian custody had been sent to conduct reconnaissance inside Egypt, though he denied the existence of a larger Hezbollah cell.

But no matter how big or small, the presence of Hezbollah on Egyptian territory is a "red line" for the government, says Nabil Abdel Fattah, a political analyst at the Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, a respected government-funded think tank in Cairo.

"This is a message for Egypt," says Mr. Abdel Fattah. "Iran is saying, 'We can achieve our goals across your territory, no matter sovereignty or national security.'"

The episode has highlighted rising tensions between forces aligned with Iran and those allied with the US and Israel. Egyptian officials believe that Iran is using Hezbollah as a proxy to destabilize a regional rival and major US ally, part of its wider push to establish itself as the dominant player in the region.

"Iran, and Iran's followers, want Egypt to become a maid of honor for the crowned Iranian queen when she enters the Middle East," Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit said in an interview Tuesday with Asharq Al-Awsat, a pan-Arab daily. "They used Hezbollah to gain a presence in Egypt and to say to Egyptians: we are here."

Philippe Vasset, editor-in-chief of Intelligence Online, a Paris-based intelligence newsletter, says it was American intelligence officials, working alongside Israel's Mossad, that tipped Egypt off to the presence of a Hezbollah cell on its own soil.

"These services monitor Hezbollah very, very, very closely," he says.

The allegations against Hezbollah

Relations between Egypt and Iran have been poor since Cairo committed the twin sins in Tehran's eyes of signing a peace treaty with Israel, and providing sanctuary to the deposed Shah of Iran after the Iranian Islamic Revolution in 1979.

But the tone has turned particularly ascerbic after the discovery of alleged Hezbollah activity, which comes at a particularly tense time for Egypt.

In January, it received heated criticism in the Arab world for its behavior during the war between Israel and Hamas in Gaza, during which it refused to open its land border with Gaza to allow refugees to flee into the Sinai.

In March, an Egyptian newspaper reported that a string of air strikes in Sudan in January and February were launched by Israel to target Hamas supply lines carrying Iranian weapons through Egypt and into Gaza.

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