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Egypt role in Lebanese mufti's election signals new strategy

The success of an Egyptian initiative for electing a new mufti in Lebanon points to a reassertion of Egypt’s regional role and part of Cairo's strategy to combat radical Islamism.

After long weeks of strenuous effort, a deal brokered by the Egyptian Embassy in Beirut paid off on Aug. 10 with the reunification of Dar al-Fatwa, the leading Sunni religious institution in Lebanon, and the election of a new mufti, the highest Sunni religious authority in the country. The success of the deal highlights several important developments, most notably Egypt’s reassertion of its regional role following a hiatus that began after the 2011 revolution. Furthermore, with its assistance, Egypt has helped Lebanese Sunnis project moderation in the face of attempted advances by radical Islamism.

The Lebanese Dar al-Fatwa — which espouses Ash’ari ideas, a moderate Islamic school of thought also adopted by Al-Azhar — has always provided religious cover for Lebanon's official, Sunni political leadership. The outgoing mufti, Mohammad Rashid Qabbani, preserved this tradition throughout the greater part of his mandate, which ends in September. In recent years, however, Qabbani's interests sometimes conflicted with the political leadership of the Future Movement, which represents the majority of Lebanese Sunnis, including over the movement's desire to amend Dar al-Fatwa’s manifesto to prevent the mufti's holding office for life. Disputes also arose between the two sides over Dar al-Fatwa real estate and financial issues.

These disagreements soon turned into a political confrontation, as Qabbani approached the Future Movement’s adversaries, that is, Hezbollah and the Syrian regime, to help him hold on to office. This development caused Dar al-Fatwa to split into two camps — one headed by Qabbani and including figures affiliated with Hezbollah and Syria and the other consisting of figures allied with the Future Movement, which is close to Saudi Arabia. The institution ceased functioning.

After the success of the Egyptian initiative in reuniting Dar al-Fatwa and electing a new mufti, the pertinent question became: Why did Cairo choose to broker this particular issue? Does it consider the initiative a launchpad for resuming its traditional leading role in the region?

An Egyptian official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told Al-Monitor, “This initiative falls within the context of Egypt’s current strategy being implemented at the regional level.” The main goal of this strategy, in the words of the official, is “safeguarding the heart of Arab Islamic moderation,” which he said can be done by adopting the following steps: “First, uniting all moderate Islamic Arab forces — including regimes, political parties, as well as Sunni religious movements — to face radical Islamists on all fronts. Second, these forces prioritizing their fight against radical Islam over their political differences, as these hard-liners take advantage of the rifts in the ranks of moderate political Islam to creep into the Arab Islamic arenas. Third, promoting moderate Islam in the face of the tide of radical and violent Islamic ideologies, because without winning this ‘advocacy war’ — behind which Al-Azhar has thrown its weight — the security war alone will not be sufficient to eradicate terrorist groups.”

The source believes that the “strongest message behind the Egyptian initiative is to prove that these steps can be implemented despite fragmentation in the political arena in the Arab world.” He added, “For the first time since the eruption of the Syrian revolution, Riyadh and Damascus agreed on one issue through Egypt — which is the safeguarding of Islamic moderation in an influential Sunni authority, i.e., Dar al-Fatwa, in the face of radical Islamists, despite their ongoing political differences.” 

“Egypt’s initiative related to Dar al-Fatwa in Lebanon has marginalized the hard-liners in the institution to the benefit of its moderate members, despite [the latter's] political differences,” the source stated. Indeed, the newly elected mufti, Sheikh Abdel-Latif Derian, received 74 votes from both camps within the institution, including from Al-Ahbash (a Sunni organization supporting Syria) and figures affiliated with the Future Movement and Saudi Arabia. Only nine out of the 103 members that make up the electoral committee voted for Sheikh Ahmed Darwish, who is close to Qatar and the candidate of the Islamic Group (that is, the Muslim Brotherhood in Lebanon) and Salafists.

It is clear that Egypt’s initiative was aimed at rehabilitating Dar al-Fatwa so it can join Al-Azhar in its “advocacy war” against radical Islamic ideologies. The Egyptian institution has branches in Lebanon led by a representation of some 20 religious scholars.

The Al-Monitor source concluded, “Egypt will later broker many deals to resolve controversial matters in Lebanon, such as the presidential vacancy, especially since Egypt views this issue in the framework of its strategy to fight terrorism on the regional level.” This explains Cairo’s preference for Gen. Imad Kahwaji, commander of the armed forces, as the next Lebanese president. His election would also sit well given international concerns about Islamic groups' targeting of regimes and their armies and now that these armies are being deployed to fight radical Islamists, who have begun to pose a threat to the West as well.

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