No Revolution for Lebanon’s Muslim Brotherhood

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It was only natural that the rise of the Islamist group in the Arab world has drawn attention to their Lebanon chapter (Photo: Haytham Al-Moussawi)

By: Qassem Qassem

Published Thursday, February 7, 2013

The head of Lebanon’s Muslim Brotherhood talks with Al-Akhbar on his group’s strained relationship with Hezbollah and why the Brotherhood’s local leadership has yet to change in the wake of the Arab revolutions.

“More than ever, this is your time.” This verse, sang by Lebanese singer Khaled al-Haber, could apply to the Muslim Brotherhood, the rising stars of the Arab world. You may differ with them politically and ideologically, but without a doubt, this is their time.

The president of Egypt hails from the Muslim Brotherhood. The Tunisian chapter of the group rules Tunisia. In Libya, the Brotherhood may not be at the helm, but it has a strong presence. As for Syria, the Brotherhood dominates the opposition Syrian National Coalition.

It was only natural that the rise of the Islamist group in the Arab world has drawn attention to their Lebanon chapter: al-Jamaa al-Islamiya, meaning the Islamic Group in Arabic.

In the Beirut neighborhood of Aicha Bakkar, the group’s green banners can be seen everywhere. Behind a huge glass building, the followers of Hassan al-Banna, the late founder of the Brotherhood in Egypt, are busy preparing celebrations for the Prophet Mohammad’s birthday.

Religious songs permeate the air, but they do not quite succeed in drowning out the noises from the building, now a hive of activity.

On the fourth floor, Omar al-Masri, the head of al-Jamaa al-Islamiya’s Beirut division, sits in a somewhat modest office. Omar is the son of the group’s secretary general, Sheikh Ibrahim Masri.

Two scarves hang on the door, one in the colors of the Syrian opposition flag, the other of al-Jamaa al-Islamiya. On the table in front of him, Masri displays a saying from the Prophet, which translates loosely as: “Fear God wherever you are; if you follow an evil deed with a good one you will obliterate it; and deal with people with a good disposition."

Based on this dictum, Masri fielded Al-Akhbar’s questions with some measure of diplomacy: How is his group’s relationship with the Future Movement and Hezbollah? How does it see the rise of Salafi groups?

Seeking Common Ground with Hezbollah

Masri did not deny that the group’s relations with Hezbollah “have cooled.” Their relationship with Hezbollah deteriorated against a backdrop of the latter obtaining a monopoly over resistance activities, according to Masri. Yet this did not stop the two sides from safeguarding their ties, which until 2005 remained “very good.”

That year, Masri said, relations were strained when Hezbollah “became involved in internal issues, to the extent of accusing a segment of the Lebanese people and its leaders of treason. As a result, signs of a Sunni-Shia crisis began to emerge, culminating in the events of 7 May.”

At the time, al-Jamaa al-Islamiya came to believe that Hezbollah had used its weapons internally. This, however, did not stop them from meeting and holding discussions regularly on topics of concern.

“The first issue is the Arab-Israeli conflict and the resistance, regardless of who is carrying the torch,” said Masri. “The second [is] the Sunni-Shia strife because we believe that the West and the US are seeking to ignite it.”

“These two issues continue to bring us together, despite Hezbollah’s support for the murderous regime in Syria, and its renunciation of a popular revolution which, although it was exploited in the global game, is a real revolution on par with those that took place in Tunisia, Libya, Yemen, and Bahrain,” said Masri.

Masri said the last meeting between Hezbollah and al-Jamaa al-Islamiya was about two months ago. Relations are still best classified as lukewarm – there’s a joint coordination committee whose function is to prevent clashes between their supporters on the ground.

Revolutionary Momentum Wasted?

With the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood in the Arab world, al-Jamaa al-Islamiya in Lebanon has had to cope with additional burdens. For one thing, Masri said, “The way politicians look at and deal with us has changed.”

“The Arab Spring will leave a mark on the group, something that we need to translate on the ground,” he added. For this reason, the group has held internal conferences to take advantage of the Arab revolutions’ momentum.

It seems that this momentum has stopped at the doorstep of the Islamic Group. Some of its supporters believe that the recent internal elections are at odds with the spirit of the democratic uprisings: the same leaders keep on getting re-elected.

Masri argued that the elections “have renewed the terms of the top echelon, namely the secretary general and the head of the politburo because the electoral commission and the Shura council both wanted to re-elect the secretary general for his astuteness.”

“New blood” has been infused into other posts, said Masri. “They will possibly emerge to the public soon.”

When asked whether al-Jamaa al-Islamiya intends to continue to align itself with the political attitudes of the Future Movement, he replied, “It is an exaggeration to say that the group has been subservient to the Future Movement. We have been keen on maintaining relations with all sides in Lebanon.”

Masri also said, “There is a shared vision [with the Future Movement] when it comes to issues like the authority of the state, the Resistance and its weapons, and their use internally.”

Regarding al-Jamaa al-Islamiya’s stance on the dispute between the Future Movement and Lebanon’s Grand Mufti Mohammed Rashid Qabbani, Masri said, “We had hoped that these differences do not come out in the open. We are all for safeguarding the status and immunity of the Mufti’s post.”

Masri went further, and affirmed, “We are not against appointments, but if we were able to hold elections for the Islamic Council, then let us also hold elections for regional muftis.”
Concerning religious extremism and the Sunni youths’ thrust towards Salafism – as opposed to the “moderation” of the Islamic Group, in Masri’s words – it is a “natural reaction to the prevalent sectarian tension.”

Politicians are partly to blame for this shift, said Masri. “When the issue of detained Islamists is kept on the shelf, while collaborators with Israel and assailants who try to set media outlets on fire are set free,” said Masri, “it is only natural for these sensitivities to come out in the open.”

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.


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