CAIRO, April 8 (Reuters) - Egyptian authorities accused the Lebanese group Hezbollah on Wednesday of planning attacks inside Egypt, a development that could plunge Cairo's relations with the Shi'ite group's backer, Iran, to new lows.
The office of Egypt's public prosecutor said it was investigating accusations that Hezbollah had recruited a 49-member cell with the aim of striking inside Egypt, a key U.S. ally in the Middle East.
Hezbollah angered Egypt earlier this year by accusing Cairo of complicity with Israel in its siege of the Gaza Strip.
"The public prosecutor received a note from state security about information confirmed by questioning about Hezbollah leaders sending some elements to the country to attract members to work with the organisation ... with the aim of carrying out acts of aggression inside the country," a statement by the public prosecutor said.
The statement said the group had been trying to monitor Egypt's Suez Canal, its border with the Gaza Strip, and tourist installations in the Sinai Peninsula and sending information back to Hezbollah.
It also said the group had been establishing links with criminal elements to forge passports and setting up businesses to cover for spying activities.
It gave no details of any attacks being planned, but accused Hezbollah of trying to spread Shi'ite ideology in Egypt.
Culled from various sources, a list of what the "Hizbullah cell" was trying to achieve:
- Carry out terrorist attacks on the Shia holiday Ashura
- Rent housing near the Suez Canal to monitor the passage of ships
- Surveillance of tourist resorts in Sinai
- Procurement of explosives to manufacture bombs
- Renting housing in luxury areas to serve as safe houses
- Recruitment of Egyptians to their cause, with the aim of sending them abroad for paramilitary training
- Using businesses to fund and provide cover for their activities
- Spread Shiism in Egypt
All that seems like a tall order... While I won't dismiss it entirely as many who have heard Egyptian security cry wolf too many times -- after all there is a rich history of Arab states and non-state actors operating in each other's turf, even if it died down in the post-Cold War world -- the idea of Hizbullah suddenly deciding to implant itself in Egypt, where it has no natural constituency, is rather weird. Spying, information-gathering, destabilization -- maybe. But this whole affair, like Morocco's paranoia about Shia infiltration, reflects the deep apprehension many Western-allied Sunni regimes have about Iran, its allies like Hizbullah, and the challenge to the dominant regional order under US hegemony that has taken place since the invasion of Iraq. This, not Shiism, is what they are afraid of.