Lebanon Pulse

Hezbollah Probes Detente with Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood

Article Summary
Hezbollah leaders look to improve relations Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, or at least refrain from criticism, while emphasizing their shared interests, writes Nasser Chararah.

The dialogue between Hezbollah and the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt never stopped. It continued — albeit secretly — given the sensitivities plaguing their relationship, due to their conflicting positions on sensitive and important issues. But so far, we can say with confidence that the secret dialogue between the two parties, marred by irregularities, has led to a clear outcome: the commitment of the parties not to criticize each other openly. Moreover, the two parties do not miss any suitable and calculated opportunities to show signs of good faith toward each other.

Over the past month, the Egyptian ambassador to Lebanon said in a Lebanese newspaper that his country's government wishes to improve its relationship with Hezbollah, describing its role as important and adding that Egypt must take it into consideration in order to restore its ties and role in the region. The former General Guide of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, Mohammed Mahdi Akef, had declared jihad alongside Hezbollah to counter the Israeli war on Lebanon in 2006, expressing the readiness of the Muslim Brotherhood to send thousands of mujahideen to fight alongside the party.

Hezbollah was and still is responding similarly to signs of good faith from the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. During the July War of 2006, Hezbollah turned a deaf ear to those who advised it that al-Manar satellite TV, which is run by the group, should broadcast songs dating back to the time of Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser. Those who offered this advice justified their request by saying that such songs would have an impact on the Arab people and incite them to take to the streets of Arab capitals in support for Hezbollah's resistance. At the time, the party feared that taking this advice would anger the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, which considers Nasser — who executed the Brotherhood’s leader Hassan al-Banna — to be its sworn enemy.

Since the rise of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood after Mubarak's overthrow, Hezbollah has been secretly trying to persuade Arab and Lebanese political forces allied to it that their conservative stance against the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt is not right. These powers are critical of the Brotherhood because it did not annul the Camp David Accords after its assumption of power. In addition, they accuse they group of arranging a deal with the Americans to ensure its rise to power.

According to Hezbollah, Washington is seeking a rapprochement with the Muslim Brotherhood, not other groups. Meanwhile, the Brotherhood is trying to cope with Egypt's internal situation and reduce its enemies. In this context, Hezbollah is confident that the Brotherhood will return to jihad against Israel as soon as security is restored in its country. Hezbollah members also feel that the party and Iran cannot be against the rise of the Islamic rule in the largest Arab country.

Observers say that a large number of  Egyptian Brotherhood and Hezbollah members believe that the only factor that constitutes a point of contention between the two parties is their differing stance on the Syrian crisis, adding that the two parties do not want this to cause hostility between them.

In this context, it is worth mentioning that the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood is different from the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood. The latter is close to Saudi Wahhabists and feels that an alliance should be forged with them, whereas the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt competes with Saudi Wahhabism. Egypt considers Cairo — not Riyadh — the leader of the Islamic world. Moreover, Cairo's Al-Azhar university considers itself — as opposed to the Saudi Dar al-Fatwa — the source of religious edicts that guide Muslims.

First dialogue

Last summer, the first in-depth and direct dialogue took place between the Egyptian Brotherhood and Hezbollah in Tunisia. The occasion that brought them together was a closed conference that included representatives of Islamist parties in the region such as the Muslim Brotherhood (from Egypt, the Arab Maghreb and other countries) and Hezbollah from Lebanon. It was also attended by the personal representative of the Swiss president, US figures close to both the US administration and the US State Department, along with other European figures who are interested in Middle Eastern issues.

The Center for Humanitarian Dialogue was behind this conference. It is an international institution that has been playing a mediating role ever since the start of the Arab Spring. It strives to create dialogue among the partisan political interest groups in the region and find points of convergence in a bid to prevent them from sliding into collision, which would lead the Arab and Muslim worlds to the tunnel of civil wars. It should be noted that two senior activists in the Center for Humanitarian Dialogue acted as advisers to the UN-Arab League joint special envoy to Syria, Kofi Annan.

These two senior activists came to Lebanon last summer but kept their visit undeclared. They held meetings with Hezbollah in order to gauge its interest in an in-depth dialogue that the Center for Humanitarian Dialogue is seeking to establish between Hezbollah and the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood in particular. Moreover, as consultants in Annan's team, they explored Hezbollah’s opinion about the Syrian events.

During the Tunisia conference, the Arab revolutions were tackled through the contributions of representatives of the participating forces, and a debate emerged during this meeting between Hezbollah’s representative and that of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood.

The Hezbollah representative focused on the need to keep the conflict with Israel and the Palestinian cause as the main factors that decide whether there should be an alliance or a dispute between Arab and Islamic forces. The Brotherhood representative, however, said that the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood's priority is the completion of the Egyptian revolution and the completion of the transition from the Mubarak regime and its remnants to a new system that meets the aspirations of the Egyptian people.

The dispute between the Brotherhood and Hezbollah emerged when they mentioned their stance on the Syrian regime. The Hezbollah representative said that the regime had made wide contributions to the struggle against Israel, and that it had to be given credit for this. The Brotherhood, however, focused on the fact that the regime was suppressing the Syrian people's aspirations for freedom.

As for Hezbollah's position on dialogue with the Muslim Brotherhood, especially in Egypt, it is summarized as follows:

First, Hezbollah is open to dialogue with the Muslim Brotherhood because this would deprive the western powers from the opportunity to incite Shiite-Sunni strife in the region. The group's position aligns with the view of the Center for Humanitarian Dialogue, according to which there must be a dialogue between the main Shiite and Sunni powers in the region in order to prevent sectarian civil wars, like the ones currently plaguing Iraq and Syria.

Second, Hezbollah is betting that despite its differences with the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood regarding current issues, the fact remains that the two parties have a common denominator, which the Brotherhood will not let go of given their doctrinal composition. This common denominator is their faith in defending the Palestinian cause and their common ideological position that opposes the Israeli enemy.

Third, Hezbollah and many people following the Islamic movements in the region believe that if the Muslim Brotherhood managed to consolidate its control in Egypt, then this would create a conflict between Egypt and Saudi Arabia under the title of "the duality of the Sunni religious legitimacy and the Sunni leadership.”

Hezbollah thinks that this is of vital importance in order to reduce Riyadh's influence on the Islamic condition across the world. According to Hezbollah, Egypt under the rule of the Muslim Brotherhood will regain its role as a Sunni authority at the expense of the Saudi authorities. In the event of the consolidation of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood in power, Al-Azhar — given its leading role throughout history — will not accept to be subordinate to Saudi Wahhabism.

Al-Azhar will work to maintain its leading role, and this will lead to a strong competition between the Brotherhood-led Cairo — which is aspiring to lead Arab and non-Arab Muslims — and the Wahhabist Riyadh, which is aspiring to the same role. In this context, an ideological dispute will inevitably emerge between Wahhabism and the Muslim Brotherhood, and the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood will find that Muslim Brotherhood rule in Turkey is closer to them than the Wahhabi rule in Saudi Arabia.

Fourth, it should be noted that the idea of a dialogue between the Shiite Hezbollah and the Sunni Muslim Brotherhood has been secretly evolving for several months. It has, however, recently faded, given the Brotherhood's preoccupation with internal challenges. The Palestinian thinker Munir Shafiq is playing an important role in bridging the gap between Hezbollah and the Muslim Brotherhood. Shafiq is friends with Rachid Ghannouchi, one of the main leaders of the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood movement (Ennahda Movement) in Tunisia. Shafiq says that he visited Tunisia early last year and met with Ghannouchi to discuss with him the issue of a dialogue between Sunnis and Shiites and establish a dialogue in this context between the Muslim Brotherhood and Hezbollah.

This idea is still being secretly studied and considered. In fact, a delegation from the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood paid an undeclared visit to Beirut in late 2011 and met with the Hezbollah leadership within the context of the Sunni-Shiite debate in the Muslim world and the establishment of a dialogue between the Egyptian Brotherhood and Hezbollah.

Nasser Chararah is a contributing writer for Al-Monitor's Lebanon Pulse, head of the Lebanese Institute for Studies and Publications, a writer for multiple Arab newspapers and magazines, author of several books on the Hezbollah-Israeli conflict and has worked for the Palestinian Research Center.

Found in: sectarianism, salafist, negotiations, lebanon, lebanese sectarian balance, lebanese politics, hezbollah, egyptian muslim brotherhood, egypt, arab

Nasser Chararah is a contributing writer for Al-Monitor's Lebanon Pulse, as well as for multiple Arab newspapers and magazines, and the author of several books on the Hezbollah-Israeli conflict. He is also the head of the Lebanese Institute for Studies and Publications and has worked for the Palestinian Research Center.


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