While its battle against Israel rages in the Gaza Strip, Hamas is embroiled in a political front in Cairo, where the Islamic group and Egyptian government are at each other's throats. It all began when Supreme Guide of the Muslim Brotherhood, Muhammed Mahdi Akef, ired the Egyptian authorities by declaring he took no issue with the spread of Shi'te Islam in the region.
"What is the problem?" Akef asked in an interview with the Kuwaiti newspaper, Al-Nahar. "After all, there are 56 Sunni states and only one Shi'ite state, Iran." Akef also has no problem with the development of Iranian nuclear technology, saying, "Iran has the right to a nuclear bomb - just like India, Pakistan, Israel and America."
On the face of it, this is just one more reference by a leader of a Sunni Islamic movement to Shi'ite Islam, in general, and Iran, in particular. Perhaps even a sharpened arrow in the direction of Akef's rival, Sheikh Yusuf al-Qardawi, who often warns of the spread of Shi'ism and Iran's influence on the Middle East.
However, Akef's remarks cannot be detached from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and Egypt's interaction with Hamas. In recent weeks, Egypt and Iran have waged a tough media and diplomatic campaign against the backdrop of Iran's support for Hamas and Iran's intention, according to Egypt, to expand its sphere of influence in the Middle East. At the end of last week, for example, the speaker of the Iranian parliament, Ali Larijani, accused Egypt of not doing enough to protect Palestinians in Gaza. Even more serious, Larijani questioned whether it is "respectful from the point of view of Islam that the foreign minister of the Zionist entity be allowed to come and speak in Cairo when Gaza is under siege, ?" Larijani was, of course, referring to Tzipi Livni's visit last week to the Egyptian capital, and he warned that "Iran is keeping an eye on the activities of all the Islamic governments" - including, of course, Egypt.
Iran's attack on Egypt is just one more link in the chain of sarcastic remarks that has turned the ties between the two countries into a media feud. It was preceded by a remark by the chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the Egyptian People's Assembly, who stated that an Islamic emirate is being set up in Gaza along Iranian lines, and the remarks of Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit, who accused Hamas of being under Iran's influence and not acting on behalf of the Palestinians.
Egypt decided it could not ignore Iran's criticism of Livni's visit to Cairo and its public response was issued by Minister of Judicial Affairs and Legislative Councils, Mofid Shihab. Shihab told the London-based paper, Ashark Alawsat, that "Livni's visit was not a friendly visit, but was designed to further the interests of the Palestinians."
Egypt, he said, had used all the means at its disposal to pressure Livni to prevent a military operation. The Egyptian pressure, however, did not help, and a war broke out. But now Egypt is facing an enemy from within, as the Muslim Brotherhood is providing religious backing for Iran's moves in the Middle East and its assistance of Hamas.
Akef's statements have indeed led to an internal argument inside the Muslim Brotherhood and not everyone agrees with his stance. Only a few weeks ago, the group criticized the grand sheik of Al-Azhar Mosque, Mohammed Sayed Tantawi, not only for shaking Shimon Peres' hand in New York but also for permitting Shi'ite theological studies at the university.
More important than this internal dissention, however, is the problem that Akef's position presents to the Egyptian government. A Sunni blessing a Shi'ite Iran is an entirely new phenomenon. For Iran, of course, this is an important achievement, but for the Egyptian government, it is a real worry.
The Muslim Brotherhood, after all, could use religion as a diplomatic and not merely political tool, and grant Iran a legitimate foothold in a region where it has until now been shunned.
Lessons from Kabul
The interview Kim Barker of the Chicago Tribune nabbed with Afghan President Hamid Karzai should be cut out and saved. Better still would be to put it in the pocket of anyone who believes it is possible to appoint presidents on a whim, and to destroy and rebuild the infrastructure of a country by waving the sword. Among other things, Barker asked Karzai about U.S. President-elect Barack Obama's description of him as a weak man and someone who spends too much time in a bunker. To this, Karzai replied that he was not in a bunker, but rather a foxhole, and that his allies were in the foxhole with him.
I am surprised that the Afghanis still have so much faith in what we are doing, he said, and I am surprised that people who were bombed so many times, whose children and families were killed, still turn to me as president, Karzai told Barker. Karzai accused the coalition forces of indiscriminate bombing, of chasing after the wrong goals and of wasting money that had been allocated for building the country. He proposed that they stop building armed militias and instead defend the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan through which the terrorists enter Afghanistan. He expressed the fear that there would be an American policy that copied modes of operation from Iraq, set up private armies and eroded the government's monopoly over order and security.
But it is highly unlikely that anyone in the new American administration will listen to Karzai's pleas. True, a new president is going to Washington, but U.S. General David Petraeus, who now commands the fronts in both Iraq and Afghanistan, is the very person who set in motion the policy of using local militias in Iraq. Their activity has been successful from a tactical point of view, but they have also aroused a great deal of criticism in Iraq since the militias operated on a tribal, ethnic or familial basis and did not consider themselves a national force.
Transferring this program to Afghanistan could worsen the ethnic conflicts especially at a time when many of its parts are controlled by local kingpins who have private militias, some of which are funded by the U.S., he said. This system closely resembles the village unions that used to operate in the Palestinian territories in the 1980s. They failed miserably, but it is doubtful this lesson appears in the texts American officers are being asked to read.
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