A war of words between the Egyptian government and the Lebanese Shiite group Hezbollah has escalated after Egypt's public prosecutor recently ordered 49 people held for plotting attacks on behalf of Hezbollah be kept in custody for an additional 15 days.
The 49 suspects include Egyptians, Palestinians, and Lebanese. They were reportedly arrested six months ago. According to a statement released by prosecutor Abdel Meguid Mahmoud, Hezbollah leader Seyyed Hassan Nasrallah is directly implicated in the case and accused of ordering his group to carry out "hostile operations" inside Egypt after his call to both the Egyptian people and the army to turn against the ruling regime.
Meanwhile, an Egyptian newspaper editor-in-chief (known to be a mouthpiece for the Egyptian government) dubbed Nasrallah an "Iranian agent", "funeral profiteer", and even "Dracula".
In an editorial published in the Egyptian daily El Gomhoria, Ali Ibrahim wrote that "Nasrallah is worse than Israel since he is trying to hurt the livelihood of the same Egyptians who supported him during the Second Lebanon War."
But many Egyptians are not buying it.
"Hassan Nasrallah is a hero. He is the only Arab leader who stood up against Israel. Hosni Mubarak is a corrupt U.S. puppet," I was told by a Cairo-based journalist on condition of anonymity.
During a recent demonstration in Cairo, several people carried Nasrallah's pictures. His pictures can also be seen in coffee shops, stores and on car windows in Egypt. His name is chanted during anti-Israeli protests. During the Israeli Operation Cast Lead on Gaza, Hezbollah's leader called on the Egyptian people and armed forces to compel their leaders and open the Rafah crossing between Gaza and Egypt. His statement drew a fierce response from Cairo.
"You are a man who used to enjoy respect, but you have insulted the Egyptian people," responded Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit.
Egypt-Hezbollah relations have deteriorated since Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak criticized the movement for recklessness at the outset of the 2006 war with Israel.
Why the arrests now?
The announcement of the arrests comes at a time of regional polarization between Egypt and Saudi Arabia on the one hand, and Syria and Shiite Iran on the other. The "crackdown" on Hezbollah appears to tie into Saudi Arabia's concerted effort to raise the specter of the Iranian-Shiite threat to the Arab world. The real target in the arrests is Iran.
Both Hezbollah and the Gaza-based Hamas are supported by Iran, which has a longstanding dispute with Egypt. Egypt and Iran have not had full diplomatic relations since Iran's 1979 Islamic Revolution, when Iran cut ties after former president Anwar Sadat hosted the deposed Shah in Cairo.
Meanwhile, a couple of weeks ago, Amos Gilad, a top Israeli Defense Ministry official speaking at a ceremony marking 30 years for Israel-Egypt peace deal, said that Egypt was Israel's "partner" in the struggle against Iran's nuclear program, adding that President Hosni Mubarak has made it clear that Cairo would not accept a nuclear Iran.
As the old saying goes, the enemy of my enemy is my friend. Hosni Mubarak & Benjamin Netanyahu vs. Ahmadinejad & Hassan Nasrallah.
Could it be?
Everything is possible in the Middle East.
Update: I've just finished watching a televised rebuttal by Hassan Nasrallah to the Egyptian accusations. He said that (my quick translation from Arabic) "If helping the Palestinian people is considered a crime... I confess to committing this crime... it is the Egyptian regime that must be condemned today". He also denied a conspiracy against Egypt and said that the prosecutor should "join the cinema after he retires...I'd like to deny that Hezbollah has any intent in committing any attacks or creating any instabilities or attacking anyone in Egypt" Jamal Dajani produces the Mosaic Intelligence Report on Link TV.