The Muslim Brotherhood has never played as large a role in the political life of Lebanon as it has in other Arab countries such as Egypt and Syria, but the January 2016 election of Azzam Ayyoubi as Secretary General of the Brotherhood’s Lebanon branch, the Jamaa al-Islamiya, has provoked speculation that the move could refresh the group’s image and bolster its influence in the local Sunni Muslim community. A 48-year-old Tripoli school inspector and head of the group’s political bureau until recently, Ayyoubi is viewed as a pragmatic yet principled Islamist leader who can shore up the group’s popularity.

Created in 1964 by Islamic activists from Tripoli, the Jamaa al-Islamiya has since then spread, to varying degrees, to all of Lebanon’s regions. It spearheads a vast network of medical facilities and schools distributed across the country. The group is also active in the Sunni religious sphere. Its influence in mosques and institutions such as Dar al-Fatwa have turned it into the most powerful Sunni Islamist actor.

Yet, for all its successes, the Jamaa al-Islamiya remains on the fringes of Lebanese politics. The group has only one member in parliament, a stark contrast to the 26 MPs boasted by the Future Movement, the party of former prime minister Saad al-Hariri that is its main Sunni rival. It is a junior partner in the March 14 coalition, a cross-sectarian gathering of parties opposed to the Syrian regime. Even in Tripoli, a traditional bastion of support for the group, it has struggled to retain its political relevance.

While there are many reasons for this state of affairs, a key element has been the lack of a bold leadership at its helm willing to clarify the group’s political positions on a range of issues, a symptom of the Islamist old guard’s grasp on the reins of leadership. Before aiming to expand the reach of his organization, Azzam Ayyoubi will thus face the uphill task of reforming the Jamaa al-Islamiya and injecting new blood into its veins.

Overcoming internal tensions

In itself, the election of Azzam Ayyoubi is a manifestation of the intense degree of frustration felt by the younger generation of activists towards an old guard that has held power since the 1960s. Indeed, the main line of fracture which emerged during the contest between candidates vying for the top post was neither ideological nor regional, but generational. It pitted Azzam Ayyoubi, who had the support of a majority of the youth, against Ghassan Hoblos, also a Tripolitan but one from the generation of the group’s founding fathers. Ayyoubi’s electoral victory was preceded by elections to the Majlis al-Shura, the group’s main internal decision making body, which yielded a major rise in young members in the Majlis.

Generational tensions are not merely a product of younger members’ thirst for positions and responsibilities but also a result of clashing visions over the identity of the Jamaa al-Islamiya. While successive leaders such as Fathi Yakan, Faysal Mawlawi, and Ibrahim al-Masri have all prioritized organizational survival through tight hierarchy and discreet political manoeuvring, the youth have by contrast encouraged greater openness and more assertive political stances. Reportedly, members in their thirties and forties have been the driving force behind the entry of six women into the group’s Majlis al-Shura who will now, for the first time, have voting rights equal to the men. They have also pushed for greater coordination with other Sunni Islamist forces and with non-Muslims.

So far, Azzam Ayyoubi has not disappointed their hopes. He dedicated his first interviews with leading Lebanese newspapers to promising that he would preside over a period of “transition” so as to turn the Jama‘a al-Islamiya into a more open, transparent, and dynamic political party. He stressed that there would be “continuity” with the line defended by his predecessor but also added that he would pay closer attention to whether the Jamaa al-Islamiya’s alliances are consistent with both their interests and their vision of domestic and regional politics.  This was an allusion to the Jamaa al-Islamiya’s electoral alliance with the Future Movement, deeply unpopular amongst its rank and file due to Saad al-Hariri’s perceived closeness to Saudi Arabia, which supported the Egyptian military’s crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood.

In addition to a possible re-evaluation of ties with the Future Movement, under Ayyoubi’s leadership the group could very well be more vocally assertive in its opposition to the Syrian regime. Days after his election, the Jamaa al-Islamiya alongside other Islamists launched a campaign to denounce the siege of Madaya through fundraising and protests at the Lebanese-Syrian border and in Beirut. Weeks later, it took a key part in a demonstration in Tripoli to express anger at the surprise release of a pro-Assad Lebanese politician who had been convicted on charges of terrorism. Ayyoubi himself has publicly embraced the Syrian opposition on several occasions.

Greater criticism of the Syrian regime and its local proxies, an issue popular with many Lebanese Sunnis, could pay off for the Jama‘a al-Islamiya. It would once again highlight its differences with the Future Movement, which has been accused of moving closer to Damascus after Saad al-Hariri embraced Sleiman Frangieh, an Assad loyalist, as a candidate for the Lebanese presidency. It would also epitomize the break between an old guard once close to the Syrian regime and younger, more principled figures such as Azzam Ayyoubi, Mohammed Sheikh Ammar (the new head of the Majlis al-Shura) and cleric Ahmad al-Omari. All are known to be particularly fierce critics of Hezbollah’s intervention in the Syrian crisis.

Caught in the sectarian crossfire?

In the context of rising tensions between Sunnis and Shia domestically and regionally, one of the Jamaa al-Islamiya’s most important challenges and responsibilities will be to prevent criticism of the Syrian regime and Hezbollah from devolving into sectarian violence. Interestingly, although the Jamaa is Sunni, until the Syria crisis it had a long-standing relationship with the Shia militia. The Jamaa al-Islamiya’s political platform states the group’s desire to “go beyond sectarian disagreements” to “develop points of convergences between Sunnis and Shia— and they are many and great.”  Its military wing, Quwwat al-Fajr, and Hezbollah coordinated several operations against Israel in the past. In fact, some Jamaa officials, such as Fathi Yakan and Abdallah Teriaqi, were so close to Hezbollah by 2006 that they defected and formed the Islamic Action Front, a Sunni group tightly linked to the Shia militia.

Relations between the Jamaa al-Islamiya and Hezbollah started deteriorating in the late 2000s, but it was the birth of the Syrian crisis in 2011 that dealt those relations what seems like a fatal blow. The rank and file of the former enthusiastically embraced the Syrian revolution, at first even providing financial support to rebels, while the latter intervened militarily on the regime’s side. Tension between the members from the two Lebanese Islamist organizations soon broke out. In December 2013, gunmen stopped the car of one of the Jamaa al-Islamiya’s top clerics and beat his driver in an area often considered to be one of Hezbollah’s strongholds in Beirut. Months later, a Jamaa activist was shot after writing a song critical of the Shia militia’s role in the regime-backed offensive on Yabrud, a rebel bastion at the Syrian-Lebanese border.

The political strife between the two Islamist groups has not yet translated into sectarian attacks or large-scale clashes between members, but a deteriorating security situation in Sidon and the Beqaa Valley, where they both have strong support bases, does not bode well for the future. Unwilling to stoke tensions further, or perhaps aware that any confrontation would likely end poorly for the Jamaa, Azzam Ayyoubi has so far insisted on the need to spare Lebanon from sectarian conflict. Driving his point home, he nominated Asad Harmoush, a former MP known for his pragmatism and wide network of contacts, as head of the group’s political bureau, where he will act as diplomat in chief. Together, they have held many meetings with politicians—some openly close to Hezbollah, such as Abdul Rahim Mrad and Nabih Berri—in a bid to keep channels of communications open. And to avoid any confusion, they warned members that “Islam does not accept extremism”.

The group’s new leadership might attempt to appeal to Lebanon’s Sunnis by adopting a more assertive stance towards the Syrian regime and its ally Hezbollah, all while trying to prevent the emergence of a truly confrontational dynamic with local Shia. This is a risky gamble, however, and to be successful it will require genuine internal reforms within the Jamaa al-Islamiya to open up the organization to deeper relations with non-Sunni parties, as well as an unyielding commitment on the part of its clerics and teachers to invest in the fields of education and civil society to defuse sectarian tensions. Failure to complete the group’s transition and to erect bulwarks against the spillover of regional crises would risk dire consequences, threatening not only the Jamaa’s survival but also that of Lebanon.