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Syrian Opposition: Syrian Muslim Brotherhood


The Ikhwan:

The Syrian Muslim Brotherhood (MB) is that other political party in Syria, the historical nemesis of the ruling Baath Party of President Bashar al-Assad. Bitter rivals during the brief period of multiparty politics in Syria in the 1950s, the Brothers (“Ikhwan”) and secular nationalists in the Baath clashed again in late 1970s, during an ill-fated Islamist uprising against the late Syrian leader Hafez al-Assad.

While in no way the behind-the-scene puppet master portrayed by the Syrian state media, the Muslim Brotherhood is believed to be the best-organized Syrian opposition group.

Leadership & Organization:

Don’t confuse the Syrian MB with the more prominent Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood. Though established in the 1940s as a Syrian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, the Syrian Ikhwan function as an independent group under the leadership of Mohammed Riad Shaqfa.

Forever associated with the failed uprising against Assad sr., which culminated in the infamous Hama massacre in 1982, the vast majority of party cadres fled Syria and found refuge in the conservative Gulf Arab kingdoms and various Western capitals. Because the membership of the Ikhwan is a capital offence in Syria, the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood has remained, above all, a tightly-knit group of exiles, rather than a mass political party.

Support Inside Syria:

In the context of Islamist politics in Syria, the Brotherhood appeals mostly to moderate Sunni Muslims, with radical Syrian Islamists flocking to more shadowy Salafi groups. The number of Syrians who declare themselves as MB supporters is impossible to verify but there is every reason to expect that the group would do well in free and fair elections, finding a receptive audience among conservative Sunni Syrians of modest or middling social background.

But there is also a large section of society, particularly secular middle-class Syrians and religious minorities, that deeply mistrusts the Brotherhood’s intentions.

Muslim Brotherhood and the Syrian Uprising:

For years, the Brotherhood’s leadership struggled to create any momentum against the seemingly impregnable Syrian regime, but that all changed with the outbreak of the Syrian uprising in Spring 2011. Although the protests were not articulated in explicitly Islamist terms, the Brotherhood backed calls for Assad’s fall and assumed an active role:

  • Syrian National Council (SNC): In October 2011, the Brotherhood joined the SNC, an umbrella organization of mainly exile opposition groups, in a conscious attempt to demonstrate its readiness to work with secular Syrian opposition.

  • Informal networks: The Brotherhood maintains its own network of activists who help collect aid and facilitate the protesters’ outreach to foreign media.

  • Free Syrian Army (FSA): The SNC itself has no direct control over the armed resistance but the Brotherhood has direct links to individual FSA commanders on the ground.

  • Foreign support: Large part of funds comes from wealthy Syrian businessmen living abroad. Given its strong presence in the Gulf, the MB will be well-placed to lobby for support from Qatari and Saudi governments.
Read more on why Saudi Arabia supports the Syrian uprising.

Ideology and Objectives:

The organization underwent several makeovers in recent years aimed at projecting a more modern image. In March 2012, the MB adopted a new party constitution, which brought it closer to the type of moderate political Islam advocated by Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan:

  • Conservative social views based on Islamic values, but with recognition of religious freedom and equality

  • Parliamentary democracy regulated with civic law, rather than Sharia jurisprudence

  • Embrace of free market economy, with emphasis on social justice

But not everyone is buying it. Many Syrians wonder how the Brotherhood would act if it came to power. While without doubt one of the most intriguing actors in the Syrian uprising, the Brotherhood has yet to evolve into a modern political party with a concrete program and a grassroots organization.

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