A visit to Beirut by the Egyptian foreign minister on Wednesday is another sign that Egypt, along with other Arab countries, has an increasing interest in Lebanon as the region braces for change with the upcoming American elections, an Egyptian political expert told The Jerusalem Post
Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit said he had discussed "Israeli threats" against Lebanon with the country's president, Michel Suleiman. He had also offered assistance in helping to build up the capabilities of the Lebanese Army to help it shoulder its responsibilities, according to the Lebanese news site Naharnet.
"It's an indication of increasing Egyptian interest in Lebanon - Egypt's interest not to be marginalized in Lebanon [and] to strengthen ties with different actors, particularly those that can be potential allies, and those that have working relations with Egypt," said Gamal Abdel Gawad, head of the international relations unit at the Cairo-based Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies.
In addition, Egypt and other countries are interested in Lebanon as "a microcosm of the Middle East," a country in which all regional disputes, conflicts and rivalries are played out, he said.
"The struggle for Lebanon today is the struggle for the Middle East. The signs and indicators of rising and declining powers in the Middle East are reflected in Lebanon," he added. "Those countries that have strong or significant influence in Lebanon are seen by observers and public opinion in general as major Middle Eastern powers."
But one observer in Lebanon called Egypt's ties with the country "friendly but insignificant," as Egypt had all "but disappeared from the Lebanese scene."
"Egypt's influence in Lebanon peaked [during] the Arab nationalism heydays of [former Egyptian president Gamal Abdul] Nasser," said the observer, who asked to remain anonymous. "Since then it has been on the decline."
Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak sees Lebanon as a battleground of the Shi'ite-Sunni rift, and is interested in lending his support to Lebanese Prime Minister Fuad Saniora, who is also Sunni, the observer added.
Wednesday's visit, part of a recent flurry of talks between leaders in the Middle East, took place amid uncertainty concerning the American presidential elections in November and the resulting US foreign policy role in the Middle East.
"I believe that everyone in the Middle East is trying to reshuffle his cards and revise his policies and his positions, because everyone is anticipating a major change with a new American president," Gawad said. "There will be some changes in American policy in the region and everyone is trying to take advantage of this. This could explain some of the extensive talks now that we observe between Middle Eastern leaders."
Gawad said that the Egyptian foreign minister's comments concerning "Israeli threats" were likely an effort to "neutralize the opposition," or the radicals in the Lebanese arena, mainly Hizbullah, so that Egypt's attempts to reach out to Lebanon would not be rebuffed.
"I would say it's not directed against Israel; it's directed against the radical forces in Lebanon, to neutralize them," he said.
In addition to Wednesday's meeting between Aboul Gheit and Lebanese President Michel Suleiman, Mubarak met on Tuesday with Omar Karami, a Sunni leader in Tripoli who is associated with the Lebanese opposition. Egypt has also recently offered to provide electricity and gas to Lebanon, which has been facing power shortages.
Egyptian officials are apparently also trying to ease tension between Lebanon and Israel.
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert warned last week that Israel would hit back harder than in it had in the 2006 war if Hizbullah were to attack again. Hizbullah's leader Hassan Nasrallah replied on Sunday, saying the response from his fighters would also be more fierce than in the month-long war.
Aboul Gheit said Egyptian officials had urged Israel to avoid making such threats during meetings with visiting Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak on Tuesday in Egypt.
AP contributed to this report.