Thursday,19 October, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1164, (12 - 18 September 2013)
Thursday,19 October, 2017
Issue 1164, (12 - 18 September 2013)

Ahram Weekly

After the fall

Will the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood be able to take over the country after the fall of the Syrian regime, asks Bassel Oudat in Damascus

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Al-Ahram Weekly

Recent events in Egypt have had a profound impact on Syria, with the ouster of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood regime having shaken its sister organisation in Syria and possibly even altering the balance of power in the country. Once the uncontested leader of the opposition National Coalition for Syrian Opposition and Revolutionary Forces (NCSORF), the Syrian Brotherhood has now been forced to take up a secondary position, with democrats now filling top positions.
Most Syrian democratic, secularist and leftist opposition groups hailed the fall of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, considering its downfall as a vote against the group’s dictatorial tendencies that were no longer compatible with the sentiments of the age and the aspirations of the nation. The Syrian Brotherhood has also been accused of meddling in Egyptian affairs, a charge that it has vehemently denied.
A spokesman for the Syrian Brotherhood said that the group would continue to act according to its principles. “When we pressured former Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi to support his brethren in Syria, many blamed us, just as today we are blamed for defending the legitimacy of Brotherhood rule in Egypt and are told to stay out of Egypt’s business.”
“But I am Syrian and Egyptian too. We lived the dream of unity between Syria and Egypt, when the two countries were part of the United Arab Republic. This unity was something that we cried over when it was lost, and we were always able to make a distinction between permanent unity and short-lived experiments,” he said.  

SYRIAN DIVISIONS: While the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood and some moderate Islamist leaders have opposed what they call the “coup” in Egypt against Morsi and have used all their powers of propaganda to bring others round to the same view, the majority of Syrians have been pleased by the fall of the Brotherhood in Egypt, seeing it as a reversal for a power-hungry and manipulative group.
As support for the Syrian Brotherhood has eroded, the other forces in the opposition to the regime of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad have used this to reconfigure the leadership of the NCSORF, the aim being to reduce the role of the Brotherhood now and in the future.
For its part, the Syrian Brotherhood has said that the “military coup” in Egypt has “sent a worrying message to the entire Arab world that the return of the military to political life is an assault on the dream of the Arab Spring and the revolution of its free youth.”
Critical of the abrogation of the Brotherhood constitution in Egypt, the Syrian group has claimed that it was cancelled “by the stroke of a pen of an officer on a tank.” But it has stopped short of calling for violence in Egypt, urging Egyptians instead to iron out their differences and engage in dialogue. Supreme Guide of the Syrian Brotherhood Riad Al-Shaqfah said that recent events in Syria had cast a shadow on the future of the political Islam groups, including the Brotherhood, undermining their chances of taking power in any Arab country.
“Egypt is a big country, and what happens there affects everyone,” Al-Shaqfah said, adding that in Syria the Brotherhood would agree to the outcome of free and fair elections after the regime’s fall. “Even if the Communist Party wins, we will leave it to rule for four full years and then the nation will decide whether to elect someone else,” he said.
Other members of the NCSORF, known for their close links with the Syrian Brotherhood, voiced their support for the Egyptian group, claiming that the power base of the Brotherhood in both countries was secure. However, it seems that the writing may already be on the wall in Syria.
The Syrian Muslim Brotherhood has had to enter into an alliance with its ideological adversaries in the National Democratic Block (NDC) in order to maintain an active role in the NCSORF. Syrian opposition member Sheikh Riad Derar, a member of the National Coordination Committee for Democratic Change (NCCDC), is critical of the Brotherhood in both Egypt and Syria, describing the Syrian group as “a double-talking and manipulative” group and voicing fears that it was misleading its democratic partners in the NCSORF.
“Political Islam is known for its constant changing of sides,” Derar told Al-Ahram Weekly. “It is known for its Machiavellian ways. Its policies are not based on strategy. Its alliance with the NCCDC is due to its vulnerability and caused by its failure to lead in the previous phase. It will be a burden on the NCCDC and will contribute to its demise. The democrats and the liberals in the NCSORF are being contaminated by the Brotherhood and this will lead to their failure in the future as well,” he said.
However, Al-Shaqfah dismissed the accusations, saying that “we in the Brotherhood are in agreement with all the other groups that once the regime of Al-Assad falls, we will have free and democratic elections and we will accept the results. We will not turn against democracy, and we have no interest in ruling alone, preferring to find common ground with others. We understand that the country is tired of one-man and one-party rule.”

SHARED SENTIMENTS: The opposition Free Syrian Army (FSA) was pleased by the fall of the Brotherhood in Egypt, and its officials said that they wanted to avoid mixing religion with politics in Syria.
FSA spokesman Fahd Al-Masri told the Weekly that Syrians had not risen in revolt against the Al-Assad regime in order to see the imposition of an Islamist emirate. Instead, what they wanted was a modern, civil state that defended their rights and dignity.
The FSA slogan, Al-Masri added, was “religion is God’s business; the country is everybody’s business.” He added that the group rejected “Islamist edicts that denounce others as ungodly. Syria is too important for these groups and their idiocies to thrive.”
Much the same sentiment is shared by the regime itself, with the Syrian state-run media welcoming the fall of the Brotherhood in Egypt and Al-Assad declaring that the developments in Egypt had “confirmed the failure of political Islam”.
Al-Assad said that the Brotherhood was a “hypocritical group that aims to spread sedition in the Arab world”. He had earlier denounced Morsi’s decision to sever Egypt’s diplomatic relations with Syria, claiming that the Brotherhood was the “main inspiration for Al-Qaeda”.
The FSA and the democratic opposition may be at war with the regime, but neither side has any love for the Brotherhood. Over the past 30 months of the uprising, the regime has been describing the revolutionaries as Islamists. But now, a major part of the revolutionaries have spoken out against the Islamists.
The state-run media and many Syrian officials now expect relations between Cairo and Damascus to improve, though the Syrian media has been highly critical of Egypt for its failure to condone the Syrian regime’s use of force against its own people.

BACKLASH AGAINST POLITICAL ISLAM: NCCDC leader Haitham Manna said that what was happening in Egypt was a message to the Syrians that change would not happen except through action by the people, telling the Weekly that “what is happening in Egypt reminds us that the army has a national role to play and that it belongs to the country and not to any party.”
“When a president takes sides, he is no longer a patriot. The demonstrations in Egypt were the biggest peaceful protest in history. And the message that came out of the protest was one that the Egyptian president didn’t understand — just like Al-Assad’s failed to understand the message of the people in Syria. This has been an error that has cost Syria 100,000 lives.”
Manna admitted that the Brotherhood had a large following in Egypt, saying that “we are aware that the Brotherhood in the past has taken charge of several professional associations through democratic elections and various political and revolutionary initiatives. But the Brotherhood wasn’t in the forefront of the 25 January Revolution, though it has done its best to steal the revolution since.”
“Any peaceful action in which more than 20 million people take part can only be taken as proof that dictatorship is not invincible and that an elected president is not immune from accountability,” he added.
The Syrians should learn from the Egyptians, he said. “A line has to be drawn between democratic Islamists and hardline fundamentalists. Syrian Islamists need to grasp the boundaries of public support and stop using violence in order to promote their cause.”
Samir Nashar, a liberal-leaning member of the opposition Syrian National Council (SNC) supported the actions of the army in Egypt in helping to remove the Brotherhood form power, blaming the group for the violence since 30 June and supporting the Egyptian army’s dispersal of the Rabaa Al-Adawiya and Nahda sit-ins.
Nashar called on the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood to reconsider its policies, accusing the group of trying to monopolise power. “Egypt’s Brotherhood promised not to run for the presidency, and then they did. They promised not to try to take over the country, and then they did precisely this. They formed a committee to write a constitution from which Copts, liberals, and secularists withdrew, and yet they allowed it to pass anyway. They promised a constitution for all, and then they failed to deliver,” he said.
“In Syria, too, no political current should be allowed to monopolise power, and the Syrian people will not accept Islamist rule.”
Writer Hazem Nahar offered another view of the situation. Speaking to the Weekly, he said that in his view “it is true that a military coup happened in Egypt, which brought down a legitimate government. But no one can deny the presence of millions of protesters in the streets. The numbers alone made what happen a revolution, and the Egyptian army wouldn’t have been able to move otherwise.”
“As for why this happened, this is the lesson that all the political currents, and not only the Islamists, should learn from. What happened was a defeat for the Islamist current in Egypt. But it wasn’t necessarily a victory for the opposition groups. It was a victory for the nation as a whole.”
“Morsi didn’t realise that he had become president following a great revolution that called for different mechanisms than those used by the previous regime. He started to act like a president under the former regime. Morsi and the Brotherhood should have realised that people don’t revolt for the sake of ideology, but in order to build a state that caters to their needs. Bringing down the regime was the first step, and it was supposed to be followed by other steps, such as creating a democratic state and reviving the economy,” Nahar said.

HEATED DEBATE: Following the killing of 25 Egyptian soldiers in a terrorist act in Sinai, the FSA offered its condolences to the Egyptian army, describing the murderers as “criminals and members of terrorist gangs”. It also criticised the position of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, which following the 30 June Revolution in Egypt had taken sides with Morsi.
FSA spokesman Al-Masri described the position of the Syrian Brotherhood as “irresponsible”, adding that it “took sides with a group that tried to exploit the revolution for its own narrow interests and to dominate the state and monopolise its institutions.”
The Syrian Brotherhood, Al-Masri said, “do not take into account the higher interests of Syria and the Syrian people either. Its thirst for power is such that it has no qualms about assaulting national figures and using methods including violence and terror to reach its goals.”
Yet, despite the warnings the Syrian group has not altered its policies, apart from minor adjustments forced by the loss of its Egyptian ally. While the Syrian Brotherhood is now in alliance with the democratic current in Syria, its immense financial resources and organisational expertise gives it undeniable clout within the NCSORF.
However, it is starting to bring at least part of its activities out from the clandestine sphere and into the public realm. After three decades of underground activities, it has set up offices in Aleppo that it says will engage in providing relief as well as military aid to the armed resistance. This step confirms its willingness to cooperate with other Syrians in formulating the country’s political future, it says.
The Syrian Brotherhood has also said that it intends to form a political party that will include Muslims and Christians from Islamist, nationalist and liberal backgrounds. This party would encompass various strands of the Syrian political scene, but would operate under the authority of Brotherhood leaders.
The group has also formed armed groups that it is using to expand its influence in northern and central Syria. The opposition claims that these Brotherhood battalions are stocking up on arms and ammunition and not making them available to nearby fighters against the regime.
Some opposition forces say that the group is stockpiling weapons so that when the regime falls it will be able to use them to boost its position against those of the other opposition groups. While the Brotherhood denies the existence of the militia, the facts indicate otherwise.
The Syrian Brotherhood controls several armed battalions that are fighting the regime but refuse to join the FSA, though they will sometimes cooperate with it. The two largest of these militia organisations are the Civilian Protection Organisation (CPO) and the Revolutionary Shields Organisation (RSO).
Both groups receive assistance from the Turkish Muslim Brotherhood, and the Syrian group was among the first to set up militias in the country. In late 2012, the Brotherhood began forming such armed battalions, most likely in order to ensure that it would have a major say in running the country once the regime was ousted.
The commanders of both the CPO and the RSO are former officers from the Syrian army, and they are believed to be well paid by the Brotherhood. Other opposition groups that do not have such extensive financial resources have not been able to afford to hire former officers.  
Thanks to assistance from Qatar, the Syrian Brotherhood has been able to pay for the services of former Syrian army soldiers, though some of the commanders of rival revolutionary groups are sceptical about the size and importance of the militias, saying that they have been cobbled together simply as a way of raising money from Qatar and other donors.
Some of the supposed battalions only include 10 fighters, and many only have some 100 combatants. The battalions are an attempt on the Brotherhood’s part to exaggerate the size of its military structure, according to rival commanders.
Nevertheless, many Syrians fear that these Islamist units could turn against other groups in an attempt to monopolise power after the regime is brought down, though one leader of the Syrian Brotherhood denies the charge. Speaking to the Weekly, he said that “these are tendentious rumours aimed to distort the image of the Brotherhood and its role in the revolution.”
“Would it make sense to stockpile weapons for the future when current battles are still unfinished because of a lack of weapons? Would it make sense to store up food when you are already hungry? These are just lies aimed to discredit the Brotherhood.”
The leader said that the organisation was committed to cooperation with others in the country.
“We want to form a national unity government if we accede to power. It is impossible for one party to run the country, and there can be no such thing as a Brotherhood government. However, we have a right to propose our political projects, just like the rest of the opposition.”
“We don’t want a one-time vote to take us to power, and we will not impose ourselves as rulers by force. We will always accept the result of the ballot box.”
Commentator Nahar said that what was happening in Egypt and Syria were incomplete revolutions. “What happened on 30 June in Egypt was a new revolution, and one that was against the Brotherhood. It is still too early to call it a correction of the path of the 25 January Revolution. Perhaps other developments will come that will be ‘corrections of the correction’. There may well be other battles to come. Egyptians should keep fighting until their aspirations are realised,” he said.
For his part, NCCDC chief Manna had no confidence in the intentions of the Muslim Brotherhood. “If the Brotherhood guide or his supporters abroad are allowed to determine Syria’s fate, this will spell disaster for the Syrian revolution. It was the Muslim Brotherhood’s actions that prolonged the life of dictatorship in Syria. Had we protected our peaceful struggle, our fate wouldn’t have slipped from our hands to those of other countries, or to those of the armed Islamists and the Brotherhood,” he said.
“Change took place in Egypt at Egyptian hands. Change can only be made by local people. Revolution is not a commodity to be exported. And change cannot be introduced by foreign forces.”
Although the Brotherhood has emerged as a major political force in Syria since the uprising began 30 months ago, it is still hard to tell how popular the group really is, and this will not become clear until after the fall of the regime.
Moreover, the situation of the Syrian group differs from that of the Egyptian Brotherhood. The Syrian Brotherhood is a major ally of the Turkish government, and it has allies in Hamas and several Islamist movements in Lebanon and Iraq. In other words, it has allies in all the countries bordering Syria with the exception of Jordan.
Most of the other opposition groups in Syria claim that the group has very limited popular support, especially after 40 years of being banned under the Al-Assad regimes. It would have been difficult for the group to build extensive support in the two years since its revival at the beginning of the uprising, even though it has been working underground for decades after being banned by former Syrian president Hafez Al-Assad.
To this day, membership of the Brotherhood is a capital offence in Syria.
However, the group is working hard to build support, and if it succeeds in doing so it will be because its opponents in the secular and liberal currents are too weak to mount a serious challenge to it. Brotherhood spokesman Molhem Al-Dorubi said that the group was now actively planning for the post-Assad period.
Regardless of the political future of Syria, Syrians are well aware that the tragic deaths of 100,000 people in the current conflict have been proof enough that the future should be a matter for the entire nation to decide, working together to find an effective formula for reconciliation.
A country traumatised by war, having lost upwards of 100,000 people, needs a future in which everyone can participate, Brotherhood members included. However, in large part the Syrian opposition, secular as well as Islamist, has not really begun to discuss the future of the country in detail, apart from mouthing platitudes that each can interpret in his or her own way.
It is now essential for all the factions of the Syrian opposition to agree on a formula for the future civilian and democratic state. Otherwise, their still-fragile alliance is all too liable to disintegrate.

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