New Egypt warms up to Hezbollah: ambassador
The Daily Star December 29, 2012 12:44 AM By Lauren Williams
[A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star
on December 29, 2012, on page 1.]
BEIRUT: Egypt will pursue a relationship with Hezbollah as a “real political
and military force” on the ground in Lebanon, the Egyptian ambassador to
Lebanon has told The Daily Star, but warned the party to work solely for the
interests of Lebanon.
Speaking just one day after Egypt’s controversial Muslim Brotherhood-backed
new constitution was signed in to law, Ashraf Hamdy’s comments are the
frankest yet on Egypt’s rapprochement with the party, and another sign of
just how far “New Egypt’s” regional foreign policy has shifted from that of
the previous regime headed by ousted President Hosni Mubarak.
In an unusually frank interview from his offices in Beirut Thursday, Hamdy,
who also served as Egyptian Ambassador to Syria under Mubarak prior to
taking up his post in Lebanon in 2010, also said a Western standard of
democracy may not be “appropriate” for Syria now, but that Egypt favored a
political solution to the crisis and that President Bashar Assad should not
be a part of any transition government in the war-ravaged state.
Outlining new lines of communication as part of an ambitious regional
foreign policy, Hamdy said Egypt would keep contacts “tight,” even with its
“We are stretching our hand out in the proper, balanced way to all regional
powers, but of course, we will continue to develop our foreign policy
according to our interests,” he said.
“You cannot discuss politics in Lebanon without having a relationship with
Hezbollah. It is a real force on the ground. It has a big political and
military influence in Lebanon,” the ambassador added.
Egyptian relations with Hezbollah were strained as a result of Egypt’s still
standing peace accord with Israel, but dived in 2008, during the previous
Gaza war, when Hezbollah leader Hasan Nasrallah called on the Egyptian
military to assist on the part of Palestine. Egypt has also accused
Hezbollah of operating terror cells in the country.
Hamdy denied reports that a Hezbollah delegation had visited Egypt but said
he had met with Hezbollah’s political bureau members in efforts “to
understand each other better.”
“In discussions we said we want Hezbollah to remain as a political force in
Lebanon acting in the interests of the Lebanese first and not others,” Hamdy
“Resistance in the sense of defending Lebanese territory ... That’s their
primary role. We ... think that as a resistance movement they have done a
good job to keep on defending Lebanese territory and trying to regain land
occupied by Israel is legal and legitimate.”
But Hamdy warned against extending that role or acting according to others’
“Mixing those legitimate goals with other goals to dominate the Lebanese
[political] scene and as the only force deciding Lebanese policy would not
be welcome by other parties in the region, or by Egypt,” he said.
On the political stalemate in the country, Hamdy said it was important that
Lebanon hold elections, as a democratic example in the region.
“We all understand the importance of having elections, but under which law
... and what benefit we will have from having elections under which law, is
obviously very complicated,” he said, adding that “only if the security
situation does not allow it, would it be advisable not to hold them.”
Asked about the level of Hezbollah’s support for Syria’s Assad, Hamdy said:
We want to keep all the parties in Lebanon away from what is happening in
Syria. Not only Hezbollah.”
Still navigating its way toward its own fledging democracy, Egypt is also
trying to carve out a new role as a regional authority.
As he spoke, intense diplomatic efforts were under way in Moscow to try to
hammer out a political solution to the seemingly intractable Syrian civil
war. Egypt’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Kamel Amr flew to Moscow for talks
with Syrian U.N.-Arab League peace envoy Lakhdar Brahimi, Syrian and Russian
officials this week who are trying to reach a deal that would see a
transition government in Syria lead to elections.
Egypt, home to the Arab League headquarters, has also opened up an office in
Cairo for the Syrian opposition coalition. And, in a forthright sign of
diplomatic muscle, in September, sought to use its leverage to bring staunch
rivals Saudi Arabia, who support the Syrian opposition, together with Syrian
ally Iran, in a new quartet initiative also involving Turkey and Egypt on
the Syrian crisis. While the initiative stalled – largely, Hamdy admits, due
to Saudi “skepticism” about Iran’s role – it was indicative of Egypt’s new
While diplomatic ties with Iran have not been restored, Syria is providing
avenues for new levels of rapprochement, Hamdy said.
“We insist that Iran has a very important role to play, if they wish, in the
Syrian crisis. We cannot simply jump over that strategic relationship with
The Quartet initiative, Hamdy said, “is not completely forgotten but I must
say that it is facing some hurdles ... due to the Saudi stand.” Hamdy said
the main point of difference with Iran remained a failure to agree on Assad’s
role in any transition model. Mursi, along with other Western and Gulf
leaders, has called on Assad to stand down. “We don’t think a military
solution is suitable to Syria ... or to the region in general,” Hamdy added.
“The difference between our stand and the Iranian stand is how can we
integrate Assad in to the final solution ... [whether he is] involved as a
transitional ruler of the country from the start, or approving that he must
leave at a certain stage, or be allowed to finish his mandate in 2014.”
“We don’t think it is appropriate now to leave him in place,” he said.
Hamdy said the best case scenario in Syria would be a smooth transition and
exit for Assad that would see it still united, but said assurances must be
made to minority sects, including Alawites, to which Assad belongs.
The worst case, Hamdy said, would be Syria becoming “a new Somalia.”
“I think many people – even countries who were committed in the beginning on
a military policy – are starting to understand that it is better to keep
Syria united under some central force,” he said.
Hamdy would not be drawn on contenders for leadership for a transitional
government in the country, but pointed to unique state structure as
“The role of the state in Syria is still solid and to try to detach the old
apparatus from the state is much more difficult [than other places],” he
“A western standard democracy in Syria maybe not be the appropriate one. A
tailor made [democracy] might be.
“Change must come. But at what cost? We, in Egypt, understand day by day
that real change takes a lot of time. You have forces opposing change,
fighting the change and the regional context.
“So we must lower your expectations and focus on the long term.”
Hamdy admitted that domestic concerns in Egypt had distracted from ambitious
foreign policy objectives, but said Egypt’s intrinsic soft power and new
communication lines, strained under the previous regime, will play an
instrumental role in mediation efforts in the region. “Egypt’s soft power is
its strength,” Hamdy said.
“To expect 180 degree shifts in strong positions take some time. Due to what
is happening domestically in Egypt, it might have meant that we have been a
bit slower than expected.”
“Egypt will reveal itself as a real regional power and a ‘doer’ on the
regional scene and we are keen to show that.”