News / Middle East

    Syria’s Muslim Brotherhood Tries to Present a New Face

    Expatriate Ghassan Hitto was chosen interim prime minister in March by Syria’s opposition organization, the National Coalition for Syrian Opposition and Revolutionary Forces. Secular and independent members objected, claiming he had no political experience.
    Expatriate Ghassan Hitto was chosen interim prime minister in March by Syria’s opposition organization, the National Coalition for Syrian Opposition and Revolutionary Forces. Secular and independent members objected, claiming he had no political experience.
    David Arnold
    The Muslim Brotherhood’s rapid rise to power in Egypt is causing worry among Syrians seeking to end the Assad family’s 42-year dynasty in Damascus.
     
    A Syrian counterpart to the Egyptian party is now a major player in Syria’s political opposition, which has been trying for more than two years now to oust President Bashar al-Assad. And like the Brotherhood in Cairo, the Syrian party is well financed, highly disciplined and determined to establish its domination.
     
    That concerns many in the Syrian opposition, who see the Brotherhood positioning itself to take over the revolution once Assad is gone. Even some members of the Syrian Brotherhood itself are worried that the Egyptian party’s rise to power in Cairo might harm its political ambitions in Syria.
     
    “People are fed up with Muslim Brotherhood because of the dominance they’ve been using,” said Jaber Zaien, a member of the National Coalition for Syrian Opposition and Revolutionary Forces. Zaien represents political activists of the Local Coordination Councils of Syria who have been a major force in the revolution since it began.
     
    “The Brotherhood wants to control the country, but they are focusing so much on their own interests before Assad falls,” Zaien said. “We want them to collaborate and cooperate with everybody in the opposition.”
     
    People are fed up with Muslim Brotherhood because of the dominance they’ve been using. 
    Dissent mounted last weekend in Istanbul as the Coalition reneged on an invitation to 31 non-Islamist activists and a Sufi cleric to join the opposition’s ranks. The heated four-day general assembly resulted in threats by secular and independent members to abandon the Coalition and more protests this week by opposition factions within Syria.
     
    Leaders of the Syrian Brotherhood are aware of the growing criticism. In a rare public statement, Secretary General Mohamed Riad al-Shaqfa recently lashed out at what he called “an unrelenting campaign to vilify and discredit the Muslim Brotherhood and its actions.”
     
    Shaqfa defended the Brotherhood’s leadership in the political opposition, but denied that it dominated the movement.
     
    The Muslim Brotherhood maintains one of the most influential and well-funded political organizations in the Syrian diaspora.
     
    It was the Brotherhood that opened the first series of meetings to organize a political opposition after the first street protests in Syria began more than two years ago. And it was the Brotherhood that supported creation of the first major opposition group, the Syrian National Council, in October of 2011.
     
    From Cairo to Damascus
     
    Links between Egyptian and Syrian Brotherhood groups continue, especially when it comes to finances and overall policy. But Eric Trager of the Washington Institute For Near East Policy, says there is little evidence that Cairo dictates Syrian strategies.
     
    They want something that is not moderate at all but quite exclusivist, and that if implemented would only strengthen divisions within Syrian society.
    "People who watch Syria should remember the way in which the Muslim Brotherhood capitalized on the revolution in Egypt,” said Trager.
     
    The Brotherhood’s goal, he said,  is an Islamic state. “They want something that is not moderate at all but quite exclusivist, and that if implemented would only strengthen divisions within Syrian society.”
     
    “No one really knows whether the Muslim Brotherhood in Syria will be the ruling party, and many feel that is not likely,” Trager said, “but at the same time it will be a major player in a post-Assad Syria.”
     
    The impression of an Islamist power grab in Egypt is troubling to Syria’s secular movements, and worries the Syrian Brotherhood as well.
     
    Amr al-Azm, a Syrian academic who follows opposition politics, says Brotherhood members tell him their Islamist colleagues in Egypt are sending the wrong message to Syrians. The Syrian Brotherhood’s spokesman wrote on Facebook that their Egyptian counterparts “are creating a burden,” according to Azm.
     
    “They are trying to make all the right noises,” Azm said, but “can they be trusted? This is where the Muslim Brotherhood has not quite succeeded: That their agenda is one where democracy and human rights will be respected.”
     
    “That lack of trust is very well justified,” Trager said. “Reading their statements is like reading those of the 2008 and 2010 in Egypt. They promised a civil Islamic state and came to power and have been quite autocratic. I think you’ll see the same thing with the Syria, especially because the leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood today participated in the violence of the 1980s.”
     
    Membership in the Syrian Brotherhood became a capital offense in 1980 after then-President Hafez Assad put down an uprising in the rebel stronghold of Hama using tanks and infantry. Most estimates say at least 10,000 Syrians were killed in the fighting.
     
    Playing politics with the Brotherhood
     
    The Brotherhood dominated decision-making in the Syrian National Council, an umbrella for many exiles that failed to gain credibility inside Syria or within the international community. The United States, Qatar and others engineered the SNC’s replacement with the Coalition in November, 2012.
     
    “The West is right to seek an alternative,” Malek al-Abdeh, a Syrian journalist, wrote in Foreign Policy magazine last year. “But in so doing, it will need to contend with the Muslim Brotherhood.”
     
    “Right from the start, the SNC was viewed by the Islamist movement as a useful tool to rebuild its own organization and position itself to capture power in Syria,” wrote Abdeh. “Knowing that many in Syria and in the West dislike the Brotherhood, the SNC proved to be useful camouflage.”
     
    Within days of the Coalition’s creation, the Brotherhood assumed majority control and later picked an interim prime minister reported to have strong Islamist ties.
     
    The Brotherhood candidate, Ghassan Hitto, is a naturalized U.S. citizen who worked in the information technology industry in Texas. He was also active in U.S. fundraising for the revolution in Syria and went to Syria last year to help coordinate relief efforts in rebel-held territories.
     
    Many Coalition members objected that Hitto had no political experience and no support from inside Syria and stormed out of the election meetings. Hitto was chosen despite their objections.
     
    “The deepening disarray of the National Coalition places its provisional government in jeopardy,” writes Yezid Sayigh of the Carnegie Endowment’s Middle East center.

    Is the Brotherhood making a comeback?
     
    As the Coalition’s sway comes under increasing question, Syria’s Muslim Brotherhood continues to increase its influence among a range of anti-Assad organizations. It is now trying to fund brigades of armed rebels and support civil society institutions in rebel-held areas.

    Supporters of the Brotherhood will often form hidden factions within larger organizations, which they dominate by voting as a bloc, while rival groups and independents scatter their efforts.
    ​But discord follows the Brotherhood’s efforts. Sayigh reports that the Free Syrian Army, which claims to be coordinating its military campaign inside Syria with the Coalition, has accused the Brotherhood of imposing its “hegemony” over the opposition, “subverting local councils and tens of coordination committees . . . to its agenda, forming militias and even creating warlords loyal to the Brotherhood.”
     
    Other experts on Syria’s opposition offer differing views of the Brotherhood’s successes.
     
    “The Muslin Brotherhood is the most powerful group in Syria’s exiled political opposition network,” Syria scholar Raphael Lefevre at the University of Cambridge writes in a report issued by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. 
     
    In making what he calls a political comeback, Lefevre reports that the Brotherhood is “emerging as a significant presence in rebel-held territory” and is “rebuilding its grassroots movement after thirty years in exile.” He cautioned, however, that Syrians do not yet trust the Brotherhood, whose influence on Syrian politics may only be felt in the long-term.

    Another report issued by the Carnegie Endowment says the Brotherhood is not as powerful as western media and diplomats once thought.  The report’s author, Aron Lund, wrote that the Brotherhood remains a kingmaker within the exile politics.
     
    “Supporters of the Brotherhood will often form hidden factions within larger organizations, which they dominate by voting as a bloc, while rival groups and independents scatter their efforts,” he wrote, describing how the group outmaneuvers secularists and other rivals.
     
    But Lund says inside Syria the Brotherhood is still weak because “their aging leadership and urban-middle-class origins have hampered attempts to connect with young activists and fighters in poor and rural areas of Syria.”
     
    The Brotherhood, he concludes, “has been struggling to keep up with events on the ground.”
     
    If Syrians ever get the chance to create a new constitution and form a representative government with multi-party elections, Azm says the Brotherhood will need to adopt greater transparency. 
     
    “We’re going to have to see a real change in behavior and that’s what they haven’t quite managed to do yet,” he said.

    You May Like

    Vietnam Urges US to Lift Lethal Weapons Ban Amid S. China Sea Tensions

    US president’s upcoming visit to Vietnam underscores strength of relationship, and lifting embargo would reflect that trust, ambassador says

    Are US Schools Turning a Blind Eye to Radical Qatari Preachers?

    Parade of radical Islamist clerics using mosque at Qatar’s Education City draws mounting criticism for American universities that maintain satellite branches there

    South Pole Diary: In Round-the-clock Darkness, Radiant Moon Shines Like the Sun

    You hear more and see more when the moon first comes out; it’s your senses in overdrive, tuning into a new world.

    This forum has been closed.
    Comments
         
    There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

    Featured Videos

    Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
    Displaced By War, Syrian Artist Finds Inspiration Abroadi
    X
    May 02, 2016 1:36 PM
    Saudi-born Syrian painter Mohammad Zaza is among the millions who fled their home for an uncertain future after Syria's civil war broke out. Since fleeing Syria, Zaza has lived in Lebanon, Egypt, Jordan and now Turkey where his latest exhibition, “Earth is Blue like an Orange,” opened in Istanbul. He spoke with VOA about how being displaced by the Syrian civil war has affected the country's artists.
    Video

    Video Displaced By War, Syrian Artist Finds Inspiration Abroad

    Saudi-born Syrian painter Mohammad Zaza is among the millions who fled their home for an uncertain future after Syria's civil war broke out. Since fleeing Syria, Zaza has lived in Lebanon, Egypt, Jordan and now Turkey where his latest exhibition, “Earth is Blue like an Orange,” opened in Istanbul. He spoke with VOA about how being displaced by the Syrian civil war has affected the country's artists.
    Video

    Video Ethiopia’s Drought Takes Toll on Children

    Ethiopia is dealing with its worst drought in decades, thanks to El Nino weather patterns. An estimated 10 million people urgently need food aid. Six million of them are children, whose development may be compromised without sufficient help, Marthe van der Wolf reports for VOA from the Metahara district.
    Video

    Video Little Havana - a Slice of Cuban Culture in Florida

    Hispanic culture permeates everything in Miami’s Little Havana area: elderly men playing dominoes as they discuss politics, cigar rollers deep at work, or Cuban exiles talking with presidential candidates at a Cuban coffee window. With the recent rapprochement between Cuba and United States, one can only expect stronger ties between South Florida and Cuba.
    Video

    Video California Republicans Weigh Presidential Choices Amid Protests

    Republican presidential candidates have been wooing local party leaders in California, a state that could be decisive in selecting the party's nominee for U.S. president. VOA's Mike O’Sullivan reports delegates to the California party convention have been evaluating choices, while front-runner Donald Trump drew hundreds of raucous protesters Friday.
    Video

    Video Kurdish Football Team Helps War-Torn City Cope

    With the conflict still raging across much of Turkey’s predominantly Kurdish southeast, between the rebel PKK and the Turkish state, many Kurds are trying to escape the turmoil by focusing on the success of their football team Amedspor in Diyarbakir. The club is increasingly becoming a symbol for Kurds, not only in Diyarbakir but beyond. Dorian Jones reports from southeast Turkey.
    Video

    Video ‘The Lights of Africa’ - Through the Eyes of 54 Artists

    An exhibition bringing together the work of 54 African artists, one from each country, is touring the continent after debuting at COP21 in Paris. Called "Lumières d'Afrique," the show centers on access to electricity and, more figuratively, ideas that enlighten. Emilie Iob reports from Abidjan, the exhibition's first stop.
    Video

    Video Pakistani School Helps Slum Kids

    Master Mohammad Ayub runs a makeshift school in a public park in Islamabad. Thousands of poor children have benefited from his services over the years, but, as VOA's Ayesha Tanzeem reports, roughly 25 million school-age youths don't get an education in Pakistan.
    Video

    Video Florida’s Weeki Wachee ‘Mermaids’ Make a Splash

    Since 1947, ‘mermaids’ have fascinated tourists at central Florida’s Weeki Wachee Springs State Park with their fluid movements and synchronized ballet. Performing underwater has its challenges, including cold temperatures and a steady current, as VOA’s Lin Yang and Joseph Mok report.
    Video

    Video Somali, African Union Forces Face Resurgent Al-Shabab

    The Islamic State terror group claimed its first attack in Somalia earlier this week, though the claim has not been verified by forces on the ground. Meanwhile, al-Shabab militants have stepped up their attacks as Somalia prepares for elections later this year. Henry Ridgwell reports there are growing frustrations among Somalia’s Western backers over the country’s slow progress in forming its own armed forces to establish security after 25 years of chaos.
    Video

    Video Documentary Tells Tale of Chernobyl Returnees

    Ukraine this week is marking the 30th anniversary of the world's worst nuclear accident, at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant. Soviet officials at first said little about the accident, but later evacuated a 2,600-square-kilometer "exclusion zone." Some people, though, came back. American directors Holly Morris and Anne Bogart created a documentary about this faithful and brave community. VOA's Tetiana Kharchenko reports from New York on "The Babushkas of Chernobyl." Carol Pearson narrates.
    Video

    Video Nigerians Feel Bite of Buhari Economic Policy

    Despite the global drop in the price of oil, Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari has refused to allow the country's currency to devalue, leading to a shortage of foreign exchange. Chris Stein reports from Lagos businessmen and consumers are feeling the impact as the country deals with a severe fuel shortage.
    Video

    Video  Return to the Wild

    There’s a growing trend in the United States to let old or underused golf courses revert back to nature. But as Erika Celeste reports from one parcel in Grafton, Ohio, converting 39 hectares of land back to green space is a lot more complicated than just not mowing the fairway.

    Special Report

    Adrift The Invisible African Diaspora