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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.
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.
Jaber Zaien, member of Syria's National Coaltion
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.
Eric Trager, Washington Institute for Near East Policy
"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.
Aron Lund, in Carnegie Endowment for International Peace report
​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.