(photo credit: AP [file])
Many Egyptians can't bring themselves to believe that Hizbullah was running agents and planning terror attacks in their country. Most Arab countries couldn't believe it, either, though they have offered no reaction. They are still trying to come to terms with the new situation.
But last week's news should not have surprised them. Iran never made a secret of its plans to export its brand of Islamic revolution to the whole of the Middle East, bringing about the destruction of Israel in the process. Hamas and Hizbullah are the Teheran regime's tools in working toward this goal.
Yet the very thought of having an Arab group set up terrorist network in the heart of Egypt is perceived by most of the Arab world as a violation of all that's holy.
Commentators can pontificate all they want about the weakening of Egypt, but the land of the pharaohs is still the most important country in the Arab world. It is the largest in population and boasts an impressive history and an impressive culture. Its strategic position is matchless since it commands the Suez Canal and is located at the crossroads of Asia and Africa.
And last, but not least, it has the strongest Arab army in the Middle East.
Had Hizbullah's subversive activities succeeded, that army might have been called in to take over. What would have happened to the region and to the peace process is anybody's guess.
We are not talking this time of a few Beduin being bribed to launch terror attacks against Israeli tourists: the target was Egypt itself.
According to official Egyptian declarations, a Hizbullah agent named Mohamed Yousuf Sami Shehab recruited around 50 young men - Lebanese, Syrian, Sudanese and Palestinians, and 12 Egyptian Shi'ites.
The foreigners entered Egypt with fake passports. When they were arrested $2 million were found in their possession, along with several cars, and explosives ready to be detonated.
They were busy setting up a terror infrastructure throughout the country, including in Upper Egypt, purchasing an apartment building in Aguza, one of the choicest locations in Cairo, and renting dozens of villas and shops in Sinai - in Dahab, Nueiba and Rafah.
In the city of Suez, they rented villas overlooking the canal in order to monitor the shipping traffic - apparently plotting to attack American and Israeli vessels. US warships bringing supplies and reinforcements to Kuwait, Qatar, Iraq and Afghanistan go through the canal on their way to the Persian Gulf.
Hizbullah may even have considered sinking a ship to close down the Suez Canal, which would have forced all maritime traffic from the West to the Persian Gulf and Asia to sail thousands of additional kilometers, via the Cape of Good Hope.
According to official sources in Egypt, Hizbullah intended to launch a massive series of terror attacks. Though American and Israeli targets were to be hit first, the aim was to destabilize the country and provoke huge demonstrations that could bring down the regime and lead to a military coup.
Hizbullah chief Hassan Nasrallah gave himself away when he admitted in his speech on Friday that Sami Shehab was a member of his organization and that he had been sent to Egypt to deliver "logistic assistance" to Hamas in Gaza.
At the same time he launched a virulent attack on Egypt, lambasting it for blockading Gaza and dismantling the smuggling tunnels. His words were tantamount to a declaration of war against Egypt.
Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif declared that there could be no compromise on the safety of his country; President Hosni Mubarak and Foreign Minister Ahmed Abul Gheit have so far refrained from comment, leaving the field to a number of unnamed sources who attacked Nasrallah vigorously.
One has to keep in mind that Egypt is at the forefront of pragmatic Arab countries fighting against Iranian subversive activities in the region.
During the Second Lebanon War in the summer of 2006, Cairo was virulently attacked by Syrian, Iranian and Hizbullah media on the grounds of its alleged support for Israel, much as it was this year, during Operation Cast Lead.
It is well known that the peace treaty between Egypt and Israel is to Iran as a red flag to a bull. The treaty is seen as a major stumbling block in the path of the Islamic revolution launched by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in 1979 - and Teheran cut off diplomatic ties with Egypt after the treaty was signed.
Recent efforts by Iran to renew these ties failed, because Teheran refused to remove the name of Anwar Sadat's assassin from a major street in the Iranian capital. But it has been suggested that this demand was nothing but a pretext: Mubarak, who is well aware of Iran's intentions, is in no hurry to renew relations.
Iran's reaction was to step up its subversive activities in the region and especially against Egypt.
Another, dangerous aspect of that battle is the determination of more and more Arab countries to have nuclear programs of their own to counterbalance Teheran's efforts. Egypt is in the final planning stage of four nuclear plants to produce electricity.
A year ago Mubarak spoke publicly against efforts being made to promote Shi'ite Islam and accused Shi'ites of being more faithful to Iran than to their own country.
In this fight Egypt finds itself allied with Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Morocco against Iran and its allies - Syria, Sudan, Hizbullah, Hamas, Islamic Jihad and lesser organizations.
It is through Hizbullah that Iran is most active. Agents and instructors from that organization are at work in Iraq, where they train pro-Iranian militias; in Yemen, where they support the Houthiin, a Shi'ite extremist movement, in rebellion against the government; and in Bahrain, where they help Shi'ite opposition forces.
It is quite likely that we are now seeing only part of their vast subversive endeavor.
In the past few weeks, the confrontation between the pragmatic Arab camp and Iran and its proxies surfaced openly. An Iranian official declared that Bahrain was an Iranian province, angering all Arab countries.
Mubarak flew immediately to Bahrain's capital, Manana, to affirm that Bahrain was and will remain Arab.
A few days later, Sunni Morocco off broke diplomatic relation with Iran because of the activities of Shi'ite preachers on Iran's payroll.
To show his displeasure with the situation, Mubarak did not attend the yearly Arab summit that took place in Doha, Qatar's capital, at end of March.
His representative launched a scathing attack on Iran without expressly naming it and said that Arabs should not let non-Arab elements interfere in their internal affairs; he went on to accuse Al-Jazeera of inciting the Arab masses to revolt against their governments - a dig at the emir of Qatar, who owns the popular station and who has lately joined the Iranian camp.
Setting up the Hizbullah network is the Iranian answer. It comes at a crucial time for Egypt, where nobody knows what will happen when Mubarak departs the scene, and where the Muslim Brotherhood is gaining strength.
Some people suggest that the feud between Egypt and Iran will benefit Israel, but this is far from the truth. Israel needs a strong and stable Egypt.
Meanwhile, there is a new player on the scene. US President Barack Obama has started a dialogue with Syria and is about to begin one with Iran.
Egypt and the pragmatic camp are not too happy about that development, though they will not admit it publicly; they would rather see Israel and the US bomb Iran and do away with the Iranian threat, since they know very well it will not be removed by diplomacy.
The raison d'etre of the ayatollahs' regime is to promote an Islamic revolution, and the only way to stop it by using force.
The writer, a former ambassador to Egypt, is a fellow at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.