An Egyptian court has sentenced 26 men to prison terms ranging from six months to life on charges of plotting attacks on tourist and commercial sites. The men were accused of belonging to a cell of the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah.
The prisoners maintained their innocence throughout the trial, saying they were just trying to help Hamas, the Hezbollah ally in the Palestinian Gaza Strip, across the Egyptian border.
But prosecutors argued successfully that the men had spied on ships in the Suez Canal and on tourist sites, with the aim of launching strikes against them. Those convicted include Egyptian, Palestinian, Lebanese and Sudanese citizens. Four were tried in absentia and remain at large.
When the defendants were arrested one year ago, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah conceded he had sent an operative to organize a small cell in Egypt, but had denied there were plans for attacks inside the country.
Defense lawyer Mohamed Hassan said after the sentencing Wednesday that the verdict was harsh and did not reflect the accusation of spying for a foreign organization. He said there was no proof of any terrorist attacks.
Expectation in Egypt had been high that the sentences might have been harsher, with at least some of the defendants sentenced to death, given the seriousness of the charges and the political atmosphere surrounding them. The alleged targets of the plots - tourism and the canal - are major revenue earners. Egypt also has a history of troubled relations with Hezbollah and its backers, Syria and Iran.
Amr Hamzawi, a senior associate with the Carnegie Middle East Center in Lebanon, said there did not seem to be any direct political interference in the trial. But, he added, the verdicts "can be interpreted politically as a sign of moderation on the Egyptian side and opening the doors for an improvement in the Egyptian-Syrian relationship." Hamzawi noted that, in the past week, there has been mediation between the two by Saudia Arabia and the Arab League.
Syria and Iran lead much of the Middle East in blaming Egypt for largely closing its border with Gaza, which is under an Israeli blockade. Hamzawi argued that Egypt has "not done a good job so far to explain to the wider Arab audience why does it have to stick to binding international treaties and, secondly, what is Egypt doing to mend it, the suffering in Gaza."
He added that "there is no clear platform by the Egyptian Foreign Ministry or Egyptian diplomacy on how to end the siege in Gaza, and everyone is acting as if it has come to be a normality of life in the Middle East."
As the easiest transit point for the illegal traffic of arms and goods through tunnels into Gaza, Egypt has had to counter increasing crime in its Sinai Peninsula. It is now building its own wall, an underground barrier, that has been greeted with a new outcry by others in the Arab world.