September 17, 2010


Syria's Muslim Brothers: Where to next? (Najib Ghadbian, September 17, 2010, Daily Star)

The Syrian Muslim Brotherhood’s recent selection of a new general guide is generating speculation about the group’s trajectory after a period in which it gave up most opposition activities. Mohammad Riyadh al-Shaqfih, elected in July after former guide Ali Sadreddine al-Bayanouni’s third term, served as a Muslim Brotherhood military leader in the 1980s and was unknown outside its ranks. [...]

After his election in 1996, Bayanouni succeeded in pulling the Brotherhood out of the isolation in which the group existed after its massive defeat in the Hama Massacre of 1982. He shifted the Brotherhood from engaging in armed struggle to political and media efforts against the regime. Bayanouni emphasized peaceful resistance to the regime and expressed a willingness to engage its leadership.

Brotherhood leaders voiced reservations concerning the transfer of power to Bashar Assad in 2000, but also said they were willing to reconcile with the regime in a climate of pluralism. Under Bayanouni’s leadership, the Brotherhood signed on to principles of democratic opposition as expressed in the 2000 Declaration of the 1999”and the 2001 Declaration of the 1,000 Petitions signed by intellectuals, artists, and activists during the liberalizing period known as the “Damascus Spring.” The signatories called for gradual reform including the release of political prisoners, allowing political exiles to return, lifting emergency laws, and abolishing exceptional laws and courts.

The Brotherhood under Bayanouni also published a political program in 2004 that called for the creation of a “modern civilian state” in Syria characterized by the rule of law, pluralism, civil society, and the peaceful alternation of political power.

These efforts led to widespread acceptance of the Muslim Brotherhood by other opposition forces. The Muslim Brothers were among the drafters of the Damascus Declaration for Democratic Change in October 2005, and went on to join former Vice President Abdel-Halim Khaddam in forming the National Salvation Front, which aimed to create a viable democratic alternative to Assad’s regime. But in 2009, Bayanouni decided to suspend opposition activities and withdraw from the National Salvation Front in solidarity with the people of Gaza.

With the exception of the controversial decision to suspend opposition activities, Shaqfih is likely to continue in the same direction as Bayanouni and differences may be more in style rather than in strategy. Shaqfih, like the new Guide of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood elected in January 2010, Mohammad al-Badiah, was not a public figure before being voted into office. This may reflect the narrowing political horizons in Egypt and Syria, and suggests that both organizations might prioritize educational and charitable tasks over political ones. Shaqfih’s military background certainly does not mean a return to military confrontation; he said in his first interview with the Saudi daily Ash-Sharq al-Awsat on August 8 that the Brotherhood renounced violence and would transform itself into a political party if the Syrian regime would guarantee political freedoms.

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Posted by Orrin Judd at September 17, 2010 2:11 PM
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