Hezbollah and Lebanon’s Muslim Brotherhood: The Syrian Divide
Published Sunday, December 11, 2011
After conducting regular dialogue sessions to work out their differences, Lebanon’s offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood and Hezbollah seem unable to overcome their biggest hurdle yet – the Syrian crisis.
Since the start of the Syrian uprising in March there have been rumors of deep strains in the relationship between al-Jamaat al-Islamiya, the Lebanese offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood, and Hezbollah.
These tensions have been largely kept under wraps, despite the two parties’ increasingly divergent positions on Syria. Al-Jamaat al-Islamiya has declared its support for “the Syrian people and their demands,” while Hezbollah has backed the “pro-resistance, anti-imperialist regime.”
Both of these two political players in Lebanon‘s Sunni and Shia communities respectively, have long agreed to disagree. Some years ago, al-Jamaat al-Islamiya and Hezbollah started holding regular meetings to exchange views.
These meetings were seen as an opportunity to bring together the two groups that shared much in common. Above all, both were committed to resistance against Israel, and to containing any communal tensions resulting from political disputes.
Despite the vast disparity between the two parties in terms of size, public support, and political influence, al-Jamaat al-Islamiya used to think of itself as Hezbollah’s Sunni counterpart.
The limitations of the rapprochement between the two parties were made apparent by the events of 7 May 2008, when Hezbollah and its allies carried out a military operation in Beirut after its communications network was threatened by the then Hariri-led government.
Eventually relations were restored, but cooled considerably. Recent events in Syria have chilled them further. But it now appears that the rift between the two sides is deeper than it first appeared.
Last week, al-Jamaat al-Islamiya’s political leader Azzam al-Ayoubi used a rally in the northern town of Minieh to launch a fierce attack on Hezbollah, albeit without referring to it by name.
“For several years, we have seen a process whereby one group of Lebanese has been coercing the others, using force to impose its views on everyone in the country,” he charged. “You are forcing us along your mistaken course using the power of your weapons.”
Al-Ayoubi upped the ante again on Wednesday at an event in the northern Akkar region, where he lashed out at Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah for supporting the Syrian regime.
“To the one who emerged in black [in reference to Nasrallah’s black cloak] to support the regimes of repression and tyranny, (I say) he must reconsider his calculations before it is too late,” he declared.
Later al-Ayoubi said he had decided to speak out against Hezbollah because its leaders had “gone too far” in backing the Syrian regime.
Asked why he did not convey his concerns during the regular meetings held between the two parties, al-Ayoubi said his group had tried in vain to persuade Hezbollah to change its position on Syria, but discussions on the matter had become futile.
“It seems they do not hear us. Our talks with them have gone nowhere. So we wanted our position on this issue to be in the media,” he said.
Al-Ayoubi insisted, however, that he was speaking “out of concern for Hezbollah, not out of hostility to it.” The position the party has taken on Syria is not in its own self-interest nor that of Lebanon, he argued.
He also stressed that “we still believe in the need for bridges to be kept open between the different Lebanese groups, and not to be blocked.”
He concluded with what he described as two extremely important points.
First, that we in Lebanon “are not isolated from our [Sunni] surroundings, and we cannot isolate ourselves,” adding, “although we are not in favor of the phenomenon of [the hard-line Salafi] Sheikh Ahmad al-Assir, for example.”
At the same time, he sought to deny that he was speaking from a position of presumed strength. “Let no-one start saying that we have become the region’s rulers and we are dealing with others on that basis,” he said. “All we are saying is that the Syrian question calls for a different and more logical approach.”
As the second most important political player in the Sunni community after former Prime Minister Saad Hariri’s Future Movement, al-Jamaat al-Islamiya, has a following among Sunnis all over Lebanon. It is older and not as locally oriented as the Future Movement and part of an ideological network spanning the length and breadth of the Islamic world.
This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.