CAIRO — Since day one, Egypt has taken action to end the escalation on the Lebanese southern border that resulted from the exchange of fire on Sept. 1 between the Lebanese Hezbollah and the Israeli army.
As a first step, Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry called Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri Sept. 1 to consult on the latest situation in Lebanon hours after the incident.
Egyptian Foreign Ministry spokesman Ahmed Hafez said in a statement on the same day that “this contact comes within the framework of Egyptian efforts with all concerned parties to contain the current tension and prevent the security situation from deteriorating.”
Egypt carried on with its consultations on the situation in Lebanon. The head of Lebanon’s Progressive Socialist Party, Walid Jumlatt, visited Shoukry Sept. 4, and he stressed during their meeting Egypt's keenness to maintain safety, security and stability in Lebanon and achieve Lebanese national interests all the while sparing Lebanon the risks of conflicts in the region.
Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi hosted Jumblatt Sept. 5, assuring him of “Egypt's constant care for the best interest of Lebanon and its people,” according to a presidential statement issued the same day.
During the meeting, Sisi and Jumblatt discussed the situation in Syria, its regional repercussions and the latest developments in the Palestinian cause.
According to former diplomats and political analysts who spoke to Al-Monitor, the Egyptian role in Lebanon has not recently developed; rather, it has been present for decades. Cairo realizes that clashes on the Lebanese-Israeli front could easily break out again, and it does not want a new flashpoint in the already-inflamed Middle East.
Ahmed al-Qawaisni, a former assistant to Egypt's minister of foreign affairs, told Al-Monitor, “Egypt is aware of how fragile the political structure in Lebanon is and how Hezbollah is being used as one of Iran’s claws in the region and utilized in the conflict between Iran and the West. This could lead to more tension in Lebanon if Hezbollah rushes into an uncalculated act.”
Qawaisni added, “Egypt is keen to reduce the tension on the Lebanese-Israeli front and preserve Lebanon’s economic capabilities, because Cairo perceives that a broad clash between Hezbollah and Israel would result in the destruction of Lebanese infrastructure.”
Although calm returned to southern Lebanon Sept. 2, concerns of a possible new confrontation between Hezbollah and Israel remain.
The Lebanese army announced in a statement Sept. 6 that an Israeli gunboat had penetrated Lebanese territorial waters, and those who were on it started yelling insults in Arabic through loudspeakers, dropped a stun grenade in the water and sounded sirens.
Head of the Israeli Studies Unit at the National Center for Middle East Studies Tarek Fahmi told Al-Monitor, “Shoukry’s call to Hariri and Sisi’s meeting with Jumblatt are proof that Egypt has not been absent from the Lebanese arena and show that Cairo stands in support of the Lebanese inner arena given its good ties with most Lebanese parties.”
According to a report published by the Egyptian State Information Service (SIS) in November 2017, Egypt has supported Lebanon in many situations and crises, including Egypt's backing for the peace process in Lebanon until Israeli forces withdrew in 2000. The report further showed that Cairo stood by Beirut during Israel's second war in Lebanon in 2006, and Egypt took it upon itself to rebuild the power plants in Lebanon that were destroyed by the Israeli aggression.
Egypt has even played a role in ending the presidential vacuum after former Lebanese President Michel Suleiman’s term ended in mid-2014, as Shoukry held several meetings in August 2016 with prominent figures from the Lebanese political movements in order to find common ground and fill the vacuum, the same SIS report stated.
“Egypt does not want a new flashpoint [in the region], and this is an important role for Egyptian diplomacy, which believes that stability in the region requires quick interventions in certain issues and not only in Lebanon,” Fahmi said.
He mentioned Egypt’s intervention in the Libyan issue since the ouster of former Libyan President Moammar Gadhafi in 2011; it supported the Libyan National Army led by Khalifa Hifter and hosted the Libyan national forces meeting in Cairo in June.
In August, Cairo hosted a meeting between the Sudanese Forces of Freedom and Change and the Sudan Revolutionary Front to hold negotiations on power-sharing to accelerate the formation of the Transitional Civil Authority.
“Egypt's regional role demonstrates its support for the territorial unity of Syria and its return as a strong state; it emphasizes that the Arab Gulf is part of Egypt’s national security [and] shows beyond doubt support to the Palestinian cause at the official and popular levels,” Qawaisni pointed out, adding, “These are natural roles for Egypt given its history, geography, location and military power.”