BEIRUT: Al-Jamaa al-Islamiya hopes that an unprecedented official visit it paid to Saudi Arabia last week will lead to improved relations with the kingdom.
A delegation, including Al-Jamaa al-Islamiya MP Imad Hout, a Beirut lawmaker, and Sheikh Ahmad Omari, a member of Al-Jamaa al-Islamiya’s Command Council, paid an official visit to the kingdom.
The trip was an indication that the often tense ties between the party and the Saudi government were thawing, as it marked the first time Saudi Arabia invited Al-Jamaa al-Islamiya on an official visit.
The delegation met Saudi Deputy-Foreign Minister Prince Abdul-Aziz bin Abdullah last Thursday.
“It is true that the doors of Saudi Arabia were closed to us politically speaking; this is the first time that Saudi Arabia has sent us an official invitation,” Omari said.
“They opened the door for us and listened to our opinion and ... we hope that this will serve the interests of Lebanon,” Omari told The Daily Star.
But he said that Al-Jamaa al-Islamiya was displeased with the timing of Saudi Arabia’s invite, saying it arrived rather late.
“It [Al-Jamaa al-Islamiya] is part of the Sunni sect and the fabric of Lebanese society. It has its schools and hospitals,” he said.
Al-Jamaa was established in Lebanon in 1964 and maintains close links with the Muslim Brotherhood.
The Islamist group and Saudi Arabia are still at odds over developments in Egypt. Al-Jamaa was a backer of the Muslim Brotherhood-led government in Egypt and opposed the toppling of Mohammad Morsi as president on July 3 by Egyptian army chief Gen. Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi.
The group staged protests in Lebanon to support Morsi, openly criticizing Saudi Arabia’s support for the Egyptian general and his crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood.
Al-Jamaa al-Islamiya is also backed by Qatar, which likewise supports the Brotherhood.
Omari said that the meeting with Saudi officials addressed developments in Lebanon, Syria and Egypt.
Omari also said he felt that Saudi Arabia had made the decision to deal with various components of the Sunni sect, rather than restrict relations exclusively with the Future Movement of former Prime Minister Saad Hariri, the kingdom’s traditional ally.
“We said that the kingdom can play a role in bringing all the [political] groups of the Sunni sect together, to avoid one group speaking for the entire Sunni sect,” Omari said.
He added that their proposal called for forming a coalition, which would include representatives of Sunni political groups along with former prime ministers and representatives of prominent Islamist groups.
“This group would assess the sources of weakness within the Sunni sect and to help restore its reputation,” Omari said.
He explained that having a united Sunni sect would strengthen coexistence in Lebanon, adding that Prince Abdul-Aziz was “very understanding” when he listened to their demands.
“As for Egypt, we voiced our hope that the kingdom play a role in bridging the gap [between Egyptian political groups] and achieving unity,” the Al-Jamaa al-Islamiya official said.
“We asked the kingdom to convince the Egyptian army to distance itself from politics, so that it is able to enjoy the unanimous support of the Egyptian people,” he added.
Omari said that dialogue would lead to consensus among Egyptian parties and avoid another army crackdown.
He added that Abdul-Aziz said the kingdom was ready to play such a role, adding that the Saudi official did not mind if some young men from the Brotherhood engaged in politics.
Omari said the Saudi deputy foreign minister promised to hold more meetings with Al-Jamaa in the future.