Whither Syria's Muslim Brotherhood?
Like it was in Egypt, the Islamic movement is the strongest opposition group in Syria. But that doesn't guarantee a similar ending to the Arab Spring there.
The speech given by Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi to the Arab League's foreign ministers last Wednesday finally clarified Egypt's stance in unequivocal terms. "This is not the time for reforms, but for change. Do not listen to the voices calling for you to stay in power," Morsi cautioned Syrian President Bashar Assad.
Unlike his speech at the conference of non-aligned nations in Tehran, in which he blamed the massacres in Syria on the regime and called it criminal, this time, Morsi called on Assad to step down.
For months, the Arab League hesitated: Adopt the position of its secretary general, Nabil al-Arabi, or that of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar and Bahrain? Choose sanctions that would force Assad to implement reforms and start a real dialogue with the opposition, or accept the Gulf States' demand to arm and fund the opposition's fighting forces?
Until recently, Egypt, like the Arab League, wavered between the two approaches. Morsi has now made up his mind. His new stance will be the one he will present to his hosts in Washington, where he is headed in about ten days. This tough stance - which stuck a sharpened knife in Iran's belly and, for now, suspended the possibility of renewing diplomatic relations between the two nations - may have empowered the Syrian opposition. But it has also aroused fears among Syrian intellectuals in exile that a "pact among Muslim brothers," would provide a tailwind to the Muslim Brotherhood in Syria.
But the arguments over what the character of Syria will be after Assad's fall are somewhat premature. With the West finding it hard to help the rebels decide the military campaign, with the militias in Syria forced to turn to organized crime organizations and arm procurers in order to buy assault rifles at thousands of dollars per rifle and two bucks per bullet, and with disagreements among the militias preventing the establishment of a joint command center, it is hard to take seriously talks about a united government-in-exile and a timetable for its establishment.
Still, like Egypt during the revolution, the largest, most organized group in the Syrian opposition is the Muslim Brotherhood. They control about one-quarter of the 310 members of the Syrian National Council (the largest Syrian opposition group working in exile. ) Its deputy president is Mohamad Faruq Tayfur, a senior Muslim Brotherhood representative. Ali Sadr al-Din al-Bayanuni, formerly the leader of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, is also a senior member of the SNC. The two are in charge of the council's logistics and assistance division, and they control a hefty portion of its budget. Within Syria, they maintain a network of civilian services and have taken control of the civilian defense authority, turning it into a paramilitary arm of the organization. Until recently, this unofficial body was controlled by a religious military outfit called the Syrian Hawks, which decided to disassociate from the authority after the Muslim Brotherhood assumed control of it.
The Muslim Brotherhood in Syria has independent sources of financing, constructed over several decades, which allow the movement to fund military and civilian activity independently. Unlike the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, however, the support base for the Syrian branch is limited. That's because of the years-long brutal and uncompromising policy of repression against the movement during the presidency of Hafez Assad, Bashar's father. The Syrian branch of the Brotherhood, established in the 1940s by Dr. Mustafa al-Sibai - a friend and colleague of Hassan al-Banna, who founded the movement in Egypt - viewed the secular Ba'ath regime, which wrested control of the country in 1963, as a bitter enemy that would postpone the realization of the dream of a country run according to sharia law.
Muslim Brotherhood representatives had served in the Syrian parliament before 1963, but from that year on, the regime waged an all-out war against the organization. That war climaxed in 1982 when Rifaat Assad, a younger brother of then-President Hafez Assad, ordered the deaths of tens of thousands of Brotherhood loyalists in the city of Hama. For three weeks, he bombed the city, invaded homes, executed people at random, and destroyed the movement's entire organizational and civilian infrastructure.
But this massacre, indelibly imprinted on the psyche of Syria and even the world, had another side: It was preceded by murders of intellectuals, doctors, lawyers and simple citizens by the Muslim Brotherhood. The terrorism spread by the movement in the 1970s prompted the regime, in 1980, to pass a law making membership in the Brotherhood punishable by death.
The regime wasn't alone in viewing the Muslim Brotherhood as a threat. Secular Syrians, intellectuals, union members and businesspeople saw it as a threat to the nation's character. The proof? The Hama massacre, as well as other fatal clashes between the regime and the Muslim Brotherhood, never generated a national protest movement in favor of the organization.
In Egypt, the regimes fought the movement but, despite having declared it illegal, they allowed it to run its system of teaching and preaching, and even to participate in political life. In Syria, the organization's situation was different. The destruction of its organizational infrastructure prevented it from maintaining a recruitment and preaching network, and most of its leaders fled abroad and continued to run Brotherhood business from exile.
The Muslim Brotherhood in Syria now faces, on one hand, its rivals from the Salafist movements, which have established fighting brigades there, and on the other hand, secular forces who don't want Syria to be ruled by Muslim religious law. The latter are also critical of the Syrian National Council for being, as they claim, controlled by the Brotherhood, and therefore incapable of representing the "real" Syria.
Even without this opposition, it is hard to imagine that the Muslim Brotherhood in Syria will take control of the country, as the movement did in Egypt. About one-third of Syria's citizenry is composed of Christian and Alawite minorities that will not support the movement. The Bedouin tribes and the Kurds, together comprising a large segment of the population, also do not identify with the Brotherhood's ideology. It seems that anyone worried about a pan-Arab Islamic revolution in Syria, given the victories of religious factions in Egypt and Tunisia, is in for a surprise.