A meeting in Beirut a few days ago between Egyptian Foreign Minister Nabil Fahmy and Lebanese Industry Minister and Hezbollah MP Hussein al-Hajj Hassan marked the beginning of a dialogue between the two sides. It also complemented a series of behind- the-scenes contacts between Cairo and Tehran to open new channels of communication and end the war in Syria. Documents of meetings that Al-Akhbar obtained reveal an initiative proposed by Iran a while ago that suggests gradually transferring presidential powers in Syria to a national government. Will Saudi Arabia accept it?
Not many people paid attention to the political breakthrough that took place in Beirut during the visit by Egyptian Foreign Minister Nabil Fahmy on March 20. The visit marked the first public meeting between the Egyptian diplomat and Industry Minister and Hezbollah MP Hussein al-Hajj Hassan. This meeting sends an important message to Hezbollah, Syria and Iran. But does it mark the beginning of a shift in Egypt?
At first, the party was reluctant to accept the Egyptian invitation but, as usual, it gave precedence to national interest over personal sensitivities and the meeting took place.There is information that Hezbollah, like Egypt, is interested in promoting openness and understanding. At first, the party was not very happy with the framework within which the meeting took place. There was a kind of disappointment with the Egyptian minister who began his quick visit to Lebanon by meeting the head the Lebanese Forces Samir Geagea and most other Lebanese leaders. And instead of asking to meet Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah, he asked that a Hezbollah minister visit him. At first, the party was reluctant to accept the Egyptian invitation but, as usual, it gave precedence to national interest over personal sensitivities and the meeting took place.
How did both sides read the meeting?
The party understands that Egypt needs to strengthen its relationship with Saudi Arabia right now for financial reasons and to complete the process of containing the Muslim Brotherhood and consolidating the authority of Field Marshal Abdel Fattah al-Sisi so that he can become president soon, and he will.
This understanding does not rule out a sense of disappointment and disapproval however. Some of this disapproval has to do with the way the Egyptian authorities deal with Hezbollah on the judiciary and media level. How is it possible to lump the Lebanese party with the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas in the legal case of the jail break at the 2011 Wadi al-Natroun prison as though Hezbollah is active inside Egypt? An accusation the party has denied repeatedly. The case is not based on any legal evidence according to Hezbollah, but is politically motivated.
The party denies that a Hezbollah cell played a role in releasing prisoners, including Hezbollah activist Sami Shihab, from Cairo prisons. First, Shihab was arrested on charges related to a nationalist cause, namely aiding Palestinians. The party bit its tongue when it came to arresting its activist in a case Shihab should have received honors for, not put behind bars. After he managed, with his comrades, to escape from an Egyptian prison during the chaotic period that followed the ousting of former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, all the party did is smuggle him out of Egypt when they learned of his escape. Any other claims are false. This is Hezbollah’s firm position and it has evidence to support it.
Many parties close to Hezbollah see a lot of exaggeration in the Egyptian perception of the relationship between Iran and Hezbollah with the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas. There is currently no financial ties or direct support for the Muslim Brotherhood. And the relationship with Hamas is still being tested. The Palestinian movement is expected to reevaluate its position with respect to what happened in the past three years. It is also expected to reposition itself as a resistance movement inside Palestine and not as part of a Muslim Brotherhood project in the region.
Hezbollah never felt comfortable with former Egyptian President Mohammed Mursi. The Muslim Brotherhood president disappointed many when he went to Iran and gave a speech that was unworthy of the hospitality he received or the place he was visiting. His hostile position towards Syria and Hezbollah and his decision to cut ties with Damascus created even more disappointment. Furthermore, when former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad came to Cairo, he was not well-received and was badly treated even at Al-Azhar University. Nevertheless, Hezbollah and Iran faced two choices, either return to the ghost of Mubarak’s era with Ahmed Shafik who ran against Mursi in the presidential elections or back Mursi. They reluctantly backed Mursi.
People close to Fahmy said that his visit to Lebanon is important even for Egyptian domestic politics because of what Lebanon represents in terms of diversity and pluralism as opposed to the ideas of religious intolerance and terrorism.Information indicates that there are four observations from the Egyptian side:
- The Egyptians stressed that starting their foreign minister’s Lebanon tour with a visit to Geagea was the result of a logistical mistake that has to do with the embassy and preparations for the visit. They realized later on the repercussions of this mistake.
- People close to Fahmy said that his visit to Lebanon is important even for Egyptian domestic politics because of what Lebanon represents in terms of diversity and pluralism as opposed to the ideas of religious intolerance and terrorism. That is why there is genuine interest in helping and training the Lebanese army and a willingness to contribute to the effort of arming it.
- A simple meeting between Fahmy and a Hezbollah minister means a lot. First, it broke the taboo placed on meeting with Hezbollah especially that it coincided with the trials in Cairo and because there is an Egyptian opposition to the role the Lebanese party is playing in Syria. Second, it is a meeting on a ministerial level. This saves Egypt any embarrassment while at the same time it paves the way to have other meetings in order to promote further cooperation through the ministries.
- The Egyptian side emphasized that the meeting with Hezbollah means that Egypt is open to all Lebanese parties and does not discriminate between one side or another. The Egyptian foreign minister was keen in all his meetings to avoid giving an opinion about the presidential candidates in Lebanon. Cairo does not want to interfere in this issue according to Fahmy’s inner circle.
What happened at the meeting?
The Egyptian minister said: “Cairo supports the role of Hezbollah as a resistance party.” He also said that there are many disagreements between the party and Cairo including its involvement in the war in Syria. But these disagreements do not rule out the desire for both sides to come together and to develop this rapport for the interest of both countries in order to protect Lebanon and the Resistance.
Al-Hajj Hassan explained that Hezbollah decided to participate in the war in Syria because of the great dangers that beset Lebanon. He said that the threat of terrorism was more serious than some people thought. He gave several examples including the issue of border areas and the town of Arsal. He also stressed that the party is worried about the targeting of the Lebanese army and that it supports the army and stands behind it. He emphasized that Hezbollah respects the constitutional frameworks and wants to elect a president according to these frameworks and the predetermined deadlines. He described the dangers of sectarian strife and how the party has worked hard to avoid them. He stressed Hezbollah’s desire to see Egypt resume its pioneering role at a very critical juncture in the history of Palestine.
In this sense, the meeting was fruitful and it coincides with an Egyptian desire to remobilize relationships on a regional level. Fahmy drew a very successful roadmap for Egyptian foreign relations. This meticulous diplomat, son of the diplomat Ismail Fahmy who resigned because of Camp David, was not close to the military establishment. Some viewed him with a measure of skepticism because of his relationship with Mohammed al-Baradei and for studying and teaching in the United States. Their view, however, changed dramatically after his success in establishing strategic relations with Russia and expanding Egypt’s choices and that of the military leadership towards India and China. Fahmy became the real architect of Egypt’s current foreign policy. Sisi realized his great potential especially when US Secretary of State John Kerry rushed to visit Egypt on the eve of the Russian delegation’s arrival in an effort to convince Cairo of the need to maintain the primacy of the US-Egyptian relationship. Kerry praised the Egyptian leadership in Cairo at the time but he was reprimanded in the White House while Fahmy, Sisi, and the new leadership smiled.
It is through the prism of this strategy that Fahmy regards the need to reestablish regional relationships with Saudi Arabia and Iran. He is certain that the Syrian crisis cannot be solved without Cairo, Tehran, Riyadh and Ankara. There have been several initiatives on this issue. Famed Egyptian writer, Mohammed Hassanein Heikal, visited Nasrallah. Some claimed that he was not officially tasked to do so. But people close to the Egyptian minister confirm that he was indeed asked to make this visit. This paved the way for the meeting between the Egyptian and Iranian foreign ministers a while back. Fahmy’s meeting with Hezbollah in Lebanon came in this context too. Paving the way towards Iran has begun despite the sensitivity of Egypt’s current relationship with Saudi Arabia.
The terms of a new Iranian initiative
Cairo was never, and will never be, happy with Turkey’s adventures in Syria.Ideas regarding the Syrian crisis were exchanged recently between Iran and Egypt. Iran proposed an initiative but Egypt believed it is weak because the other side might reject it. Information indicates that this initiative included four points.
- A comprehensive cease-fire at a national level.
- Forming a national unity government consisting of the regime and the internal Syrian opposition.
- Laying the grounds for a new regime by transferring presidential powers to the government whereby the government will enjoy wide-ranging powers in the years to come.
- Preparing for presidential and parliamentary elections.
Cairo believes that the basics of the Iranian initiative are good but not sufficient. This initiative might develop later if consultations expand to include Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Iran and Turkey.
The Egyptian position is changing. Surely, Egypt did not head the list of Arab countries that refused to hand Syria’s seat at the Arab summit to the opposition Syrian National Coalition (SNC) but Cairo did not oppose this decision. It preferred, however, to remain in the shadows for reasons having to do mostly with its relationship with Saudi Arabia and with the Syrian opposition.
Cairo knows that the SNC is in a tight position because of its current divisions. It is also aware that the legal grounds to hand over Syria’s seat to the opposition do not exist. It knows that the SNC’s head, Ahmad Jarba, who is seeking to renew his term, wants to get rid of nine members of the coalition. It is also aware of the difficulties that the opposition is facing on the ground. It is therefore weaving serious security relations with Syria. Reestablishing diplomatic ties, however, requires a Syrian initiative that has not materialized yet that would include the release of detainees from the opposition National Coordination Committee and other bodies such as Rajaa al-Nasser.
In addition, there is the position of the Egyptian army, which always repeats that Egyptian national security is organically tied to the national security of Syria and its army. Cairo was never, and will never be, happy with Turkey’s adventures in Syria. It might have even sent something of a warning in this regard.
There is no doubt that Cairo needs Syrian initiatives. There is also no doubt that its relationship with Saudi Arabia limits its ability to maneuver. But there are important changes on the Arab scene that might help it in the next phase. A prominent Kuwaiti MP for example says that Kuwait’s official position and that of some Gulf countries now supports Syria, fighting terrorism, preserving the Syrian army and encouraging a political solution that entails the survival of Syrian President Bashar Assad. He stresses that the emir of Kuwait literally told him so.
Does the meeting between Fahmy and Hussein al-Hajj signify the beginning of major changes? Definitely. But we are still at the beginning of the road.