Ayman Sharrouf

The destructive ascendancy of Syria’s Muslim Brotherhood

Over the last 10 years the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood has consistently shown that its only desire is to dominate all other opposition forces, regardless of the consequences

Ahmed Tohme at the French Foreign Affairs Ministry, 5 December 2013 (AFP Photo/Lionel Bonaventure)

Just over a week ago, the National Coalition of Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces (SOC) almost collapsed after meetings held in Istanbul revealed many flaws in its body politic, and it wasn’t the first time fundamental differences had appeared. Disagreement centered on control of the Interim Government and the Free Syrian Army’s Supreme Military Council (SMC), and was chiefly provoked by the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood.


Four months have passed since the SOC dissolved Brotherhood affiliate Ahmad Tohme’s government and so far it has not succeeded in electing a replacement. This was attempted during their last meeting, but with no success, and the unity of the SOC as a whole was threatened. All the decrees the Brotherhood tried to push through, regardless of the danger to the coalition, were put to an end by Hadi al-Bahra, who nullified them and called for a new meeting.


It is now well known that the Brotherhood wants Tohme and no one else as coalition prime minister, despite the fact that his dismissal followed an official investigation — SOC questioning of Tohme and his cabinet revealed corruption in some ministries and failure by the prime minister to achieve the bare minimum of what was expected from the government.


At the last meeting, while the other SOC members worked to reach an all-inclusive solution that would help the coalition run smoothly, the Brotherhood almost brought an end to it as an internationally-recognized institution by trying to force Tohme’s reinstatement as head of an Islamist cabinet.


“The Brotherhood tried to secure the quorum through prevarication and voted for an Islamist-controlled government it had hand-picked itself,” said a prominent member of the coalition.


“It showed no respect for the opposition’s plurality, which is an expression of plurality inside Syria, trying instead to put Tohme back in office after his complete failure to meet the expectations of the Syrian people.”


It is noteworthy that the cabinet the Brotherhood wanted to form included a justice minister who believes the application of Sharia law, rather than a civil code, is the basis of a sound society.


The Brotherhood also infuriated many of the SOC’s blocs during the meeting by trying to take full control of the coalition’s military wing, the SMC, and its aid agency, the Assistance Coordination Unit, through appointment of political affiliates.


“The Brotherhood insisted on being a main player in the polarization process, both inside [Syria] and in the region,” said Samir Nashar,  SOC member and head of the Damascus Declaration Party’s Secretariat General.


“It tried to impose its control over coalition leadership, the Interim Government and the SMC. This way of dealing with other Syrian parties has begun to alienate […] most forces participating in the coalition.”



From the Damascus Spring to the Arab Spring


All the decrees the Brotherhood tried to push through, regardless of the danger to the coalition, were nullified by Hadi al-Bahra, who then called for a new meeting. As for the Brotherhood’s tendency to monopolize power, it didn’t begin at the last meeting.  It has continuously pursued such action since the beginning of the Syrian revolution, and even prior to that.


“Our first experience with the Brotherhood was in 2004 when the Damascus Declaration rejected continued legal action against Brotherhood [members] and condemned the atrocities committed against them,” said a prominent member of the opposition.


“Although many Damascus Declaration members were prosecuted [for their stances], the Brotherhood quickly left the party on its own. They joined Abdul Halim Khaddam’s [National Salvation Front] when he defected in 2005 after serving as one of the regime’s most important figures.”


“Then, in 2008, before the war on Gaza, they put their opposition to the Syrian regime on hold through Qatari mediation and intervention from Sheikh Yusuf al-Qardawi.”


At the beginning of the Syrian revolution in 2011, when the group and other opposition forces began to come together, the Brotherhood was viewed as the group that had borne the brunt of regime oppression — the victim of despicable massacres in Hama, Aleppo and Jisr al-Shughour.


It was also distinguished from all other groups and independent members in the opposition by being the only organized faction, in addition to having regional connections and branches outside Syria. Consequently, it was able to take pole position on the opposition scene from the moment it joined the Syrian opposition in exile with support from certain regional states.



Hemorrhaging support


The Brotherhood’s popularity in Syria at the beginning of the revolution cannot be denied; it was the Sunni group that matched the aspirations of a considerable section of Syrian society, especially in rural areas. However, its behavior on a number of occasions has caused its popularity in Syria to drop sharply.


“The Brotherhood insisted on taking political leadership of the Syrian opposition and [clung] to the fantasy that it was the biggest and most influential faction,” says Nashar.


“Certain supporting states have contributed to the growth of this fantasy and that is what has caused a great deal of the regression the Syrian opposition, as represented by the SOC, has seen.”


“In the last meeting the principle of consensus as a basis for joint action by different parties was rejected; instead, a fait-accompli policy was imposed on dissenting SOC members.”


The power -mongering approach pointed to by Nashar and many others, both inside and outside the SOC, goes back to the time of the Syrian National Council (SNC) — the first opposition group to represent the Syrian people — the relief offices of which the Brotherhood successfully took control of.


This has been confirmed by members of the SNC, who have a lot to say about how relief funds were unjustly exploited to win the support of certain areas and sections of Syrian society. Eventually, the Brotherhood’s practices gave the SNC a bad name and contributed to its downfall.


What happened to the SNC has repeated itself with the SOC; while the Brotherhood led the Interim Government through Tohme, they appointed a large number of their associates and created fake positions so as to benefit their supporters.


That arrangement, Nashar says, “has had a negative impact on the performance of opposition institutions. They have lost the support of the people, and regional and international support has also declined.”


“It is now common knowledge that constant battles between the forces inside the coalition take place whenever there is an election, and that every battle produces new alignments and the beginning of the next battle.”


“The Brotherhood didn’t think agreement with the others was necessary for the opposition to achieve the goals of the revolution.”



Ingratitude and ignorance


Although the Brotherhood is currently the largest opposition faction outside Syria, it has not had a political presence in the country since the 1980s.


“It is true that all political forces in Syria were repressed and had very limited influence on the political scene inside the country,” Nashar admits. “However, it is also fair to say that democratic, civil and leftist forces […] made a big contribution to the Damascus spring, [took part] in the composition of the Beirut-Damascus declaration, and launched the Damascus Declaration.”


“This resurrected the political spirit in Syrian society, and [the people involved] were among the first supporters of the revolution. They also defended the Brotherhood’s right to be part of the political scene in a democratic Syria and they paid the price [i.e. they were arrested for the stances they took].”


“This shows how ungrateful the Brotherhood has been towards the forces that defended it.”


These practices, which predate the Syrian revolution, have alienated many opposition parties, blocs and personalities, but that hasn’t made the Brotherhood review its policies; instead, it has continued to insist on the consolidation of its power.


According to coalition sources, “during the last meeting, the Brotherhood said Turkey had insisted on Tohme as prime minister.”


“They did the same thing in the meeting in July when Tohme was dismissed, but it turned out the Turks had taken a neutral stance.”


“In the last meeting, rather than simply taking a neutral stance, the Turks actually rejected Tohme’s reinstatement and the way in which the Brotherhood defied most other parts of the opposition.”


It seems that the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood has failed to learn anything from the experiences of its Egyptian and Tunisian counterparts that might make its own experience more successful, whether prior to or after the fall of Bashar Assad. Thus far, before actually governing in Syria, if that ever happens, all the group has done is repeat ousted Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi’s attempts to dominate and exclude his rivals.


Nashar says he had been hoping Brotherhood members would “benefit from the harsh blow dealt to their peers in Egypt and the negative results that that produced, not just for the Egyptian Brotherhood but for nation building and the democratic process in Egypt in general.”


“The Syrian Brotherhood has moved away from the democratic beacon the Ennahda Movement helped build in the Tunisian revolution — Tunisia, which is now witnessing a democratic change unparalleled in the Arab world […] has become the focus of everyone’s attention.”


“Arab citizens and foreign observers only need look at what has happened in Tunisia and Egypt to see the consequences the success of the first and the failure of the second have had for Arab spring states and the region as a whole.”


“All this is because of the selfish and opportunistic policies implemented by the Brotherhood.”



Juggling sponsors


The Brotherhood always portrays any action it takes as having foreign backing — from Turkey and Qatar, in particular. However, as the SOC’s last meeting and its June meeting have shown, this is not always true, especially where Turkey is concerned.


Despite this, there can be no doubt that the Brotherhood’s claims of foreign support have not come from nowhere. The progress of the agreement between Qatar and other Gulf states is what occupies it now. In the past, it relied on Arab differences to strengthen its position and benefit from unlimited support.


Although the Brotherhood has received a large amount of support from Qatar, it has never ruled out developing close relations with Saudi Arabia as a means of preserving its interests. It has continually tried to court the Kingdom, which has served as a refuge for the group in past crises.


According to Nashar, “the Brotherhood tried move closer to Saudi Arabia before by entering an alliance with the Democratic Bloc to which former SOC President Ahmad Jarba belongs.”


“The main reason behind the current crisis is the end of that alliance, especially since the Kingdom’s designation of the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist group and has stopped supporting Tohme’s Brotherhood-dominated government.”


"That is the main political reason behind [his cabinet’s] dismissal and the reason behind the current struggle to reinstate it. Qatar, which is practically the only supporter of Tohme’s government, has taken the opposite stance [to Saudi Arabia].”



Four years of domination crowned by failure


Since 2011, the Brotherhood has displayed far more effective organizational skills than any of its rivals, and it is these skills that have helped it penetrate and control all opposition bodies. In the period between the Antalya conference in Turkey in 2011 and the Brussels conference shortly afterwards, the Brotherhood began its journey to control all aspects of opposition politics.


At the end of September 2011, the Brotherhood took control of the SNC at the moment of its formation. This was achieved by spreading out in separate groups among the opposition figures who had gathered in two separate Turkish hotels before the council was formed. Consequently, the Brotherhood was able to enter the SNC with a clear majority.


After that, at the same time it was taking control of the SNC’s relief efforts, the Brotherhood branched out to the council’s military wing —  the secular-leaning Free Officers Movement was disbanded after the Brotherhood won the loyalty of Free Syrian Army founder Riad al-Asaad.


Later, in mid-2012, the Arab League organized a conference in Turkey to discuss the formulation of a draft agreement on transitional rule by the opposition and restructuring of the SNC. A later meeting in Cairo outlined the foundations of the draft, which included an article criminalizing the use of money to consolidate political influence. The Brotherhood reluctantly signed the draft but managed, after paralyzing the SNC, to remove it from the SOC’s constitutive act, which was formulated in Doha, Qatar, in November 2012.


The Brotherhood’s journey as part of the Syrian opposition shows how the group has transformed from an opposition faction that opposed Assad’s dominance to an opposition faction that has employed many Assad-like tactics, from grabbing power and imposing its own ideas to harassing dissenters.


After being in existence for nearly four years, opposition forces are regressing noticeably, and although the agendas of other members have contributed to this spectacular failure, the main role has been played by the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood.


Despite this, it still has an important role to play. It now faces two choices: either to repeat the Egyptian experience — except that the Assad regime has yet to fall — or repeat the Tunisian experience, which currently looks a long way off for the Brotherhood.


The path it decides to take, after potentially losing the ability to play on regional differences in light of the rapprochement in the Gulf, will become clear in the coming days. However, past experience does not suggest there is any hope of a change in behavior.


Ayman Sharrouf tweets @aymansharrouf

The agendas of other members have contributed to this spectacular failure, but the main role has been played by the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood. (AFP Photo/Lionel Bonaventure)

In the last meeting, rather than simply taking a neutral stance, the Turks actually rejected Tohme’s reinstatement and the way in which the Brotherhood defied most other parts of the opposition.”