EL ARISH, Egypt — When Egyptian police pounded on the door before dawn and took her husband Nimr away, Sahar Zibawi had no idea that her partner was about to become a pivotal player in a convoluted political plot involving gun running to Gaza, a notorious African smuggling route once used by the French poet Arthur Rimbaud, an Iranian-backed Hezbollah cell and an attempt by Egypt's aging president to reclaim his waning regional influence.
"We've been put in a whirlwind and we don't know why," Zibawi said nervously while she met surreptitiously with a McClatchy reporter in this Mediterranean coast town that's a gateway for smuggling to Palestinian-controlled Gaza.
Nimr Zibawi, a Sinai construction worker, is one of more than 40 suspects accused of joining a Hezbollah cell that Egyptian authorities claim was plotting to destabilize President Hosni Mubarak by attacking ships in the Suez Canal and hitting tourist-dependent Red Sea resorts.
After weeks of intense questioning that their attorneys said included daily beatings and torture, Nimr Zibawi and at least one other suspect recently made videotaped confessions in which they admitted to helping smuggle weapons to Gaza militants, but not to plotting attacks inside Egypt.
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"If they helped the Palestinian resistance, maybe it's true, but not in the way our government claims," said Malek Adly, an attorney with the Cairo-based Hisham Mubarak Legal Rights Center, which is representing Zibawi and eight others. "Nothing they did was intended to harm Egypt."
In some ways, Mubarak's reaction has been more important to Middle East politics than the allegations themselves: "Beware the wrath of Egypt."
The 81-year-old Mubarak is looking to reclaim his role as a regional power broker at an auspicious time: President Barack Obama has chosen Egypt as the setting for his highly anticipated June 4 address to the Arab and Muslim world.
Obama is looking to transform America's image in the Middle East — and Mubarak could play a critical role in helping the new president succeed.
Israel and the U.S. have tried to enlist pro-Western, Sunni Muslim nations such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Jordan in a regional coalition to counter Shiite Iran and Hezbollah.
Until now, many Sunni Arab leaders have been reluctant to get into a public diplomatic feud with Iran. That may be changing.
"The situation has become incredibly complex because it's not just an Egypt issue, it's about where the Middle East heading next after being completely destabilized by the Bush administration," said Issandr el Amrani, a Cairo-based analyst for the International Crisis Group.
"Iran represents the revival of the rejectionist camp, which stands against everything Egypt has built over the last 30 years," el Amrani said. "There are concerns in the regime and the wider establishment in Egypt that doesn't want to see the country go back to its anti-Western positions."
The Sinai desert has become a remote battleground in this regional ideological feud.
The weapons route to Gaza is thought to run along a legendary African smuggling route that French poet Arthur Rimbaud used in the late 1800s.
Israel reportedly bombed arms convoys on the route in Sudan during the winter Gaza offensive. That put more pressure on Egypt to take stronger steps to disrupt an arms route Israeli intelligence warned was being used to smuggle increasingly sophisticated rockets into Gaza.
If the Sinai suspects were accused merely of smuggling guns for Palestinian militants, this case might not be as significant.
Egyptian police, however, said that the men were involved in plans to destabilize Mubarak by plotting attacks on popular Sinai tourist resorts, scouting out ships in the Suez Canal, and, in a pointed jab at Iran and Hezbollah, accused them of spreading Shia Islam.
"This is a case about trying to tarnish Hezbollah's image in Egypt," Adly said. "There has been a shift in politics between Hezbollah and Egypt."
Tensions between Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah and Mubarak have been building since Nasrallah publicly urged Egyptians to rise up in December and challenge their president for refusing to fully open his border with Gaza and allow Palestinians to escape Israel's three-week military offensive.
"Nasrallah's behavior since December 27 has been really out of bounds and doesn't happen very often in Middle East politics," el Amrani said. "It's really unprecedented and hasn't been seen in decades of inter-Arab relations."
Israeli papers reported that their government had provided Egypt with critical intelligence about Nasrallah's agents in the Sinai that led to the first arrests in December. That Egyptian sweep began three weeks before Israel launched its military offensive in Gaza.
Sahar Zibawi was rebuffed for months when she tried to find out where her husband was and what he was accused of doing. Then, four months after Nimr was arrested, Egypt announced on April 8 that it had broken up the Hezbollah cell, including the Egyptian-born construction worker with Palestinian roots.
Zibawi said she was stunned by the news and her fears compounded.
Late last month, Egyptian intelligence returned to El Arish with Nimr Zibawi for a surprising visit. Wearing normal clothes and cologne, he was ushered into the house to spend time with his wife as the birth of couple's third child neared.
"He told me: 'I'm Egyptian before I'm Palestinian. Don't believe anything you hear," Sahar Zibawi said.
Security then led Nimr into a room where he confessed to being part of a Gaza-Sinai gun smuggling group, but not to plotting against Egypt, according to his attorney, Hosam Hadad, who witnessed the confession.
In an unusual address after the arrests were announced in April, Nasrallah admitted that one of the men picked up by Egyptian police, a Lebanese man identified as Sami Shehab, was helping to smuggle weapons to Palestinian militants in Gaza. However, he rejected any allegations that Hezbollah planned to challenge Mubarak.
Egyptian papers responded by lampooning Nasrallah as a "monkey Sheik" and suggesting the he be tried for war crimes. Egypt summoned Iranian officials to protest that nation's reaction to the case. And Mubarak obliquely warned Iran and Hezbollah to back off.
In the Sinai, relatives of the men at the center of this case nervously gathered in a nondescript house to meet a McClatchy reporter.
With young men keeping watch on the door for Egyptian security, the wives, mothers, fathers and brothers of several of the suspects said their relatives had become political pawns.
"Our sons have been hijacked by politics," said the father of one of the suspects who gave his name only as Abu Ihab. "We're just asking the hijackers to give us back or kids and stop making stuff up."
"I just want to know the end," said the mother of one of the men who gave her name as Umm Nasser. "Are we going to see them again, or are they gone forever?"
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