Hamas and al-Jamaa al-Islamiya: The New MB Look

Members of Jamaat al-Islamiya, an Islamist Sunni group, gesture as they shout slogans against Syria's President Bashar Assad during an anti-government protest, at the port-city of Sidon in south Lebanon 12 August 2011. (Photo: Reuters - Ali Hashisho)

By: Fidaa Itani

Published Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Muslim Brotherhood affiliates in Lebanon seem poised to follow in the footsteps of other MB chapters who merged with the international brotherhood movement and endorsed populist policies. Meanwhile, Hamas is under tremendous pressure to move away from the Syrian Iranian axis.

More than one year after the start of the Arab popular uprisings and the assumption of a leading role by branches of the Muslim Brotherhood, the parent organization thinks its Lebanese chapter, al-Jamaa al-Islamiya, is still being too hesitant.

In business parlance, al-Jamaa al-Islamiya is in demand, but it has failed to adequately supply the market’s need.

Were the Muslim Brotherhood’s decision-making centralized, we would by now have seen the emergence of a local “Justice and Development” movement here in Lebanon. It would be demanding the overthrow of the Syrian regime day and night, and doing all it could provide the Syrian revolution with whatever it might ask for via supply lines through Syria’s backyard.

But the parent organization is not centralized and al-Jamaa al-Islamiya, aware of the complexities of the local situation, has until very recently chosen a middle path.

However, a delegation of the group’s leaders will soon travel to Qatar, according to sources in northern Lebanon. There, they are to conclude a “final agreement,” in all its details, aimed at bringing the Lebanese al-Jamaa al-Islamiya into the mainstream Brotherhood fold.

Hezbollah leaders can no longer aspire to forge a strong or deep alliance with al-Jamaa al-Islamiya.

Times have changed, as they have for Hamas, too. The Sunni tide sweeping the Arab street from end to end needs political leadership. Given the Muslim Brothers’ presence on that street, the vacuum beckons to them. Big powers and decision-making capitals are also pressing them to take the ground that is quaking from under the feet of the regimes.

Unconnected to the local, social, economic, and other reasons for revolutions underway in the Arab world, some in the US and in Western capitals believe that the time has come to replace the occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan with local tools, and to counter the Shia tide with a tide of a different kind. Instead of the al-Qaeda stick, the Brothers’ neckties can be used. When things go wrong, the al-Qaeda stick can still be wielded in various hands, until things settle in the conflict zones, the revolutionaries devour each other, and power is held by those who are best placed for it.

In the course of this international struggle, a desperate attempt is being made to pry the Palestine dossier out of Iranian hands.

While it has proven impossible to coerce or co-opt Hezbollah in this regard, despite long-standing American and local attempts to do so, the party can always be side-tracked and bogged down in sectarian squabbles, as experience also shows.

Hamas is a different case. There is always room between the cracks in Hamas’ many walls for pressure to be exerted here or inducements made there – or for Khaled Meshal to be cornered into saying things behind closed doors (which his hosts then leak to the media to prevent him from retracting), such as his decision to step down as leader is final.

With Hamas, it is possible to negotiate over the financial assistance it gets from Iran. For years, Hamas was accused of going Shia, branded as a stooge of Iran, and blasted as extremist – even if they were brethren and from big Gazan families. Yet here is Hamas today, forfeiting and (at the same time) losing Iranian aid estimated at 25 million dollars per month, and starting to submit to offers from the Gulf.

It was Qatar which first embraced Hamas to the maximum extent possible. Were it not for the Iranian missiles and weapons in Gaza, Qatar would have been keener to bring Hamas into the Brotherhood garden in Doha than it was Sheikh Qardawi. Even so, Doha never burns bridges with anyone, least of all offshoots of the Brotherhood.

Saudi Arabia never broke with Hamas either, although it always used to prefer Abu Mazen and his Palestinian Authority. While it had avoided intervening directly in the conflict in Syria and refrained from making offers to Hamas, it has in recent weeks begun following in the footsteps of its little sister Qatar. It has shown remarkable energy both in intervening politically in Syria and taking steps to come to terms with Hamas and the rest of the Brotherhood. Qatar previously banked purely on the Salafists to rival the Brothers and fill the vacuum left by the collapsing regimes.

The requirement today is for Hamas’ sources of funding to be confined to Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and other philanthropic moderate Arab brethren. In exchange, “the Palestinian cause is to be left to the Palestinian brethren,” as many Arab and Brotherhood statements would have it.

Perhaps the most significant of those statements were made by both Rachid Ghannouchi, leader of Tunisia’s al-Nahda party, and Abdelilah Benkirane, Morocco’s prime minister and head of its Justice and Development party, to the Israel Radio correspondent at the World Economic Forum at Davos in Switzerland. They said that it was for the Palestinians themselves to decide the nature of their relationship with Israel. They also affirmed that the Islamist movements would act in accordance with the Palestinians’ decision.

In a number of issues, the cracks through which the Arab and international winds could seep into the edifice of Hamas have become more than mere cracks.

Hamas has in practice distanced itself from Syria. It has vacated its offices in Damascus, leaving just a few cadres behind in what used to be the capital of the movement’s external wing.

Hamas then demonstrated its good intentions by breaking the bones of a group of Shia in Gaza who were holding a memorial for Imam Hussein, just to make sure nobody could accuse it of being Iranian.

Hamas went further when it offered to merge with the Islamic Jihad Movement in Palestine. For those who may not know, Islamic Jihad is the group that most worries Israel, as its efforts are devoted purely to combat and it is uninterested in power. It is also the closest to Iran, from which it receives extensive financial and technical aid and know-how. But Hamas’ attention is divided between combat, politics, power, and the public finances. Accordingly, the merger offer can be understood, simply, as an offer to dissolve Islamic Jihad should it one day prove to be an impediment to Hamas joining the Muslim Brotherhood mainstream in the Arab world.

Lebanon is a different matter, though not unconnected to the above context.

When Walid Jumblatt returned from his visit to Qatar, he suggested to a limited number of his cadres that his Progressive Socialist Party must not stand in the way of the rising Sunni Islamist tide and that by its very nature it must interact positively with the decision of the majority. If the latter opts for the Muslim Brotherhood, so be it, as “this is a phase for majorities, not minorities.”

Jumblatt barely had enough time between the end of his Qatari trip and the start of his Russian one to send out a similar missive. Curiously, it did not acknowledge his former allies in the Future Movement, but was directed specifically at the Muslim Brotherhood.

The Future Movement, whose media these days can hardly be heard discussing anything other than the Syrian revolution, has been put into temporary retirement. Someone broke the Future Movement’s leg, left it incapacitated to nurse its pain in hospital, and turned to another party.

In the interim, while the bed-ridden Future Movement awaits its eventual discharge, the vacant space may as well be filled by some amateurs, and some competition. Salafists preachers, some funded by Saudi Arabia and others by Qatar, can be left to compete, pending agreement on a clear formulation with the nominated party. Indeed, these small Salafists groups can be waved in the face of the group with which negotiations are being held to fill the vacuum as much as possible in the coming period.

If all goes to plan, al-Jamaa al-Islamiya, according to those who run things in the region, is supposed to play a dual role.

First, it will support the Syrian revolution and provide more services to incoming Syrian refugees. Some go to the extent of saying that this includes preparing for the creation of safe areas on the border, particularly in the northern parts of Lebanon.

In addition, it must act to withdraw the legitimacy of the title of resistance from Hezbollah, even though everyone knows this would create a conflict as bad as toppling the Syrian regime or a little worse. Nevertheless, there are people in agencies of the Lebanese state, in the broken-legged Future Movement, and in the Salafists societies, who can contribute to that, if they have not already begun preparing for it.

Fidaa Itani is a political commentator on Lebanese affairs and Islamist movements.

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

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