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Muslim Brotherhood: ‘We're living in an age of democracy’ as critics question commitment

May 16, 2013

This second of a two-part series looking at the disconnect between Syrians and the National Coalition that hopes to lead them in an Assad- free Syria. Nuha Shabaan and Michael Pizzi investigate the challenges the Coalition faces, and ask Syrians how they feel about their representatives-in-waiting.

AMMAN: As rumors swirl during online discussions between political activists, the Syrian National Coalition has not yet publicly confirmed who will compose the interim government under Prime Minister Ghassan Hitto, a Kurd and naturalized American citizen. Some suspect that the Muslim Brotherhood, which has operated largely underground over 40 years of Ba’ath Party rule, will wield substantial influence. The Coalition’s 63 members have not disclosed party affiliations, however, and only six members of the SNC officially represent the Brotherhood.

“We are living in the age of democracy,” says Muslim Brotherhood spokesman Zohair Saleem, who is based in London. “We have six members in the Coalition. That’s less than ten percent. Other members have their own minds and are responsible for their decisions.”

Despite the numerical truth behind the spokesman’s words, many pro-revolution Syrians nevertheless maintain that Brotherhood members and sympathizers comprise a plurality within the Coalition. In March, the FSA Joint Command went so far as to release a statement accusing the Muslim Brotherhood of overstepping their bounds and dominating the National Coalition.

 

THE WAR ROOM: The Syrian National Coalition released this video shot in the cinema vérité style of an American political campaign earlier this week. The video, which was filmed in a five-star hotel conference room in Istanbul, according to sources close to the interim government, appears to aim to convince Syrians the Coalition is at work representing them. Video courtesy of the Syrian National Coalition.

 

“The Muslim Brotherhood has worked to divide the opposition from within in order to hijack the Syrian revolution,” said FSA Joint Command Spokesman Fahad al-Masri, one of the signees of the anti-Brotherhood statement. “If the Muslim Brotherhood wants to show good will, they should expand the Coalition to include all groups in the Syrian opposition without any exclusion.”

The Syrian Brotherhood’s leadership rebutted these claims. “Al-Masri and others attempt to target the [Brotherhood] and offend us, but they don’t represent anything,” said Omar Mashoud, head of the Brotherhood’s media office.

Mashoud accused al-Masri of misrepresenting the FSA, whose leadership structure is notoriously murky. He said that the Brotherhood was in constant communication with other FSA officials. Such communication disputes between the FSA and the Brotherhood exacerbate the already uneasy relationship between rebel fighters and their political leadership in exile, which activists say reflects a wider disconnect between the revolution's military and political wings.

Sameer al-Homsi, a longtime political dissident who manages the popular online Syrian chatroom “Hiwar Siyasi” (Political Dialogue), says the Coalition is being “dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood and their allies.” This, he says, could pose an obstacle to the revolution's cohesiveness because the transitional government it appoints is likely to reflect Brotherhood influence.

"The Muslim Brotherhood is not popular among the FSA and the fighting battalions,” al-Homsi said. The Brotherhood’s reputation has been damaged by their policy of cutting off supplies to those battalions that fail to grant them allegiance, al-Homsi charged, an accusation widely leveled by Syrians on the ground active in the revolution.

“We don’t want to take part in these conflicts,” Brotherhood spokesman Saleem said. “Time will prove that we want a democratic future for Syria based on the ballot box,” he said in response to questions about al-Homsi’s accusations.

Rebel fighters who feel increasingly detached from the Coalition and its policies may pose a problem for the transitional government, activists say. Without the full support of the revolution's military wing, they say, the Coalition cannot expect to survive inside Syria.

Syrian journalist Ghassan al-Mifleh, also a member of the National Coalition, says that the Brotherhood controls the Coalition, and wonders whether the group will respect the full spectrum of political views among Syrians.

“Yes, the Muslim Brotherhood dominates the National Council and the Coalition, and I say that as a member of it,” he wrote in an April op-ed for Elaph.com. “The question is: Will the Muslim Brotherhood use that domination in a democratic way? Will they use it to serve the objectives of the revolution?”

Connecting with civil society

Not all opposition factions are pessimistic about transitional SNC rule. Sameh Otri, from the pro-revolution Syrian Free Academics Union (UFSA), says that the transitional government might begin to erode political divisions by fulfilling the basic functions of the state, namely by providing social services.

“We already have committees and institutions that have replaced those of the regime,” says Otri. “We have the Syrian Free Academics Union, the Syrian Committee for Education and many others. We have opened schools, held exams, paid salaries and other things.” The Free Directorate of Education in Aleppo, for example, recently announced that it will begin offering transitional courses and secondary school exams next month.

Otri’s organization, the UFSA, is composed of anti-regime academics who feel that the regime has failed in its mandate to “enlighten the Syrian people” through education. It aims to mobilize the academic elite to participate in revolutionary initiatives alongside factions like the FSA and SNC. On the UFSA Facebook page, the organization details a plan to restore educational and research institutions in support of the Syrian people. In the meantime, the Union is coordinating scholarships and circulating transfer opportunities for those students whose study in Syria has been disrupted by the current conflict.

Otri points to the early accomplishments of his association and other nascent organizations in replacing the state’s educational functions as evidence that a transitional government might bridge gaps between opposition factions in the same way.

"These [organizations] can be the connection between Mr. Hitto's transitional government and those in the field,” says Otri. “Providing decent lives for the people should be the priority for the transitional government.”

Improving lives through basic services might also bolster the political leadership’s presently fragile legitimacy.

“The next step for the opposition is to move into the liberated areas and operate there immediately,” says Yaser al-Dumani of the Duma LCC, who, for now, remains unconvinced about the transitional government. “Only then will we be able to distinguish between the opposition of hotels and bright lights and the true opposition working against dictatorship and injustice.”