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Head of Lebanon’s Islamic Group opposes any intervention in Syria

In an interview with Al-Monitor, Azzam al-Ayoubi, head of the political bureau of the Islamic Group in Lebanon, said that his party has no official ties with Hezbollah and revealed that Saudi Arabia had assured his organization that it would not be included on its expanded terrorism list.
Members of Islamist Sunni group Jamaat al-Islamiya carry placards as they shout slogans against Syria's President Bashar al-Assad during an anti-government protest, at the port-city of Sidon in south Lebanon August 12, 2011. The placard reads "Oh Islam". REUTERS/Ali Hashisho (LEBANON - Tags: CIVIL UNREST POLITICS) - RTR2PV16

The Islamic Group, a branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, became the first Islamic organization in Lebanon when the Abad Al Rahman Group — founded in in 1950 in Beirut by Mohammad Omar Daouk along with a group of Islamists in Tripoli, most notably Fathi Yakan — adopted an Islamic current. This occurred after Mustafa Sibai, comptroller general of the Muslim Brotherhood in Syria, took refuge in Lebanon in 1952. Al-Monitor recently conducted a phone interview with Azzam al-Ayoubi, head of the Islamic Group's political bureau, to discuss the group's current status and its position on Lebanese and Arab developments.

Ayoubi confirmed that the Islamic Group participated in the first round of elections in parliament to select a president, but refused to disclose whether its representative, Imad Hout, had voted for Samir Geagea, head of the executive body of the Lebanese Forces Party. Sources close to the Islamic Group, however, told Al-Monitor that Hout had cast a blank ballot, in contrast to the March 14 Alliance, whose members generally voted for Geagea and with which the group has been affiliated.

Ayoubi told Al-Monitor that his party nonetheless supports Geagea's electoral program, but also said that it "does not have reservations about relations with Geagea" despite his supposed involvement in the assassination of Prime Minister Rashid Karami. According to Ayoubi, "This subject is no longer an issue after the closing of the book on the Lebanese civil war. Geagea is like other [former] warlords."

Regarding the Islamic Group's position in the Lebanese arena, Ayoubi rejected the characterization that it is in a state of decline. Rather, he said, it is "relatively weak compared to other political forces that enjoy foreign support." He noted that the group is "larger and more powerful [than in the past] and is spread across all regions of Lebanon. It is in a good situation, which did not exist in previous years."

Mohammed Aloush, a researcher specializing in Islamic movements, spoke to Al-Monitor on the Islamic Group's declining role and how its social and political presence benefit two factions: the Future Movement and the Salafists (in particular, extremist Salafists). The Islamic Group's ideology, which has been described as moderate and rejects sectarianism, is no longer compatible with the atmosphere of sectarian tension being experienced by Lebanon.

Regarding the group's relationship with the Salafists, Ayoubi stressed that "Salafist" is a broad term, and there are many differences among them. He also emphasized, however, that his group "has no problem with Salafist thought. Rather, the problem is with the arguments and actions of some Salafists." He added that the Islamic Group's relations with most Salafist figures "are good, based on the common interest of unifying the components of the Islamist arena."

Kassem Kassir, another Islamic movements researcher, told Al-Monitor that the Islamic Group, in cooperation with Salafist currents and other forces, had formed the Association for Muslim Scholars, which aims to unify Islamist efforts in Lebanon. Yet when it comes to Salafist jihadists, Ayoubi called for "holding a dialogue in order for them to comprehend the reality of the situation in Lebanon. Islam does not accept imposing an opinion by force. Rather this should be done through persuasion." 

Kassir pointed out that the Islamic Group faces several challenges in light of the Muslim Brotherhood's failed government in Egypt, the regime of Bashar al-Assad remaining in power in Syria and the increasing role of Salafists in Lebanon and the region. According to him, the Islamic Group nonetheless "remains the strongest Sunni Islamist organization in Lebanon, because the Salafist forces are fragmented and do not have a unified leadership. [The Salafists] suffered from problems following the failure of Ahmad al-Assir, the launch of the security plan [targeting Salafists] in Tripoli and the Bekaa Valley and the arrest of a number of networks carrying out car bombings."

Regarding the Qatari-Saudi settlement and the possibility of it negatively impacting the Brotherhood, Ayoubi offered, "The existence of the Brotherhood is not based on support from any Gulf state." He also stated, "The Gulf states do not have a unified stance regarding the Brotherhood, as some of them supported the coup in Egypt, while others supported [former President Mohammed Morsi]." He ruled out the possibility that the Qatari-Saudi understanding will lead to a change in the positions of these states, "which realized that the [continuation of the] dispute was not in their interests." He noted that the Islamic Group does not object to their understanding and actually calls for Arab and Gulf unity.

In terms of the Islamic Group's relations with Saudi Arabia, Ayoubi told Al-Monitor, "[Our] relationship exists via the Saudi Embassy in Beirut. There are no direct ties with the Saudi government [per se]." He said that relations had not been affected by the Saudi royal decree that added the Muslim Brotherhood to the kingdom's terrorist list, revealing that the Saudi Embassy had sent the Islamic Group a letter clarifying that the decree did not affect them.

Aloush noted that the Islamic Group is cautious when it comes to dealing with the Gulf states, which have not viewed the group's status in Lebanon with particular importance, as it does not pose a threat to their interests there.

Kassir pointed out that the Islamic Group objects to what the Brotherhood has faced in Egypt and the Gulf states and that it has expressed positions and issued statements condemning what has happened. At the same time, however, it has not organized popular movements [to protest the actions]. "It has been keen to distinguish its status from that of the Egyptian Brotherhood and has tried to maintain contacts with the Saudis, but the relationship is lukewarm at present," said Kassir.

Ayoubi said that his party's relationship with the Future Movement is "governed by a desire to maintain the unity of the Sunni scene in Lebanon, despite the existence of many differences, including regarding positions on the military coup in Egypt." He criticized the Future Movement's stance in support of the coup and said that it contradicted their position on military intervention in Lebanon and Hezbollah's weapons. Kassir said that relations between the Islamic Group and the March 14 coalition, in particular the Future Movement, deteriorated following the Egyptian coup, because of Saudi and Future Movement support for it. The Islamic Group no longer participates in March 14 meetings, according to Kassir.

Turning to Hezbollah, Ayoubi said, "The relationship between the Islamic Group and Hezbollah was the best relationship between two Lebanese parties for decades, yet later these ties were affected by disputes regarding internal and external issues." First and foremost was the issue of Hezbollah using weapons domestically, a reference to the events of May 7, 2008. At the time, the party took control of Beirut after a decision by the government of Prime Minister Fouad Siniora to cut Hezbollah's communications networks and hold officials responsible for them criminally liable. The biggest dispute between the two sides, according to Ayoubi, is their positions on the Syrian crisis. While the Islamic Group supports the revolution, Hezbollah is fighting alongside the Syrian regime.

Ayoubi explained that although relations with Hezbollah have not been severed, "There are no high-level contacts, and communication is carried out on an informal basis." Aloush said that the relationship between Hezbollah and the Islamic Group had begun to sour after the assassination of Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in 2005, when Hezbollah supported the establishment of the Islamic Action Front. The later was considered an alternative to the Islamic Group on the Lebanese Sunni scene. The official relationship between the two sides, however, did not end until the outbreak of the Syrian crisis, according to Aloush.

Ayoubi asserted that the Islamic Group is opposed to any Lebanese party joining the fighting in Syria, whether for or against the regime. This, according to him, "was due to the negative effect it would have on Lebanon, which is unable to withstand the results of such interference." He noted that, regardless, the Islamic Group has expressed media and political support for the Syrian revolution and embraced Syrian refugees. Aloush reiterated that the Islamic Group has supported the Syrian opposition via media outlets and assistance provided to refugees, but has not offered any form of armed support, such as transferring fighters or weapons into Syria. He also noted that the group has allocated the Shifaa Hospital in Tripoli to treat injured Syrian refugees in Lebanon.

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