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. Muhammad Riyadh al-Shaqfih, elected in July after former Guide Ali al-Bayanouni’s third term, served as a Brotherhood military leader in the 1980s and was unknown outside its ranks. While al-Shaqfih and his predecessor assert that there will be continuity in organization policies, a change at the top inevitably raises questions about a possible shift in the group’s strategies toward the Syrian regime.
After his election in 1996, Ali al-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. Al-Bayanouni shifted the Brotherhood from armed struggle to political and media efforts against the regime. He emphasized peaceful resistance to the regime and expressed willingness to engage its leadership. Brotherhood leaders voiced reservations concerning the transfer of power to Bashar al-Assad in 2000, but said they were willing to reconcile with the regime in a climate of pluralism. Under al-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 1000 petitions signed by intellectuals, artists, and activists during the liberalizing period known as the “Damascus Spring.” They called for gradual reform including releasing political prisoners, allowing political exiles to return, lifting emergency laws, and abolishing exceptional laws and courts. The Brotherhood under al-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 Brotherhood by other opposition forces. The Brothers were among the drafters of the Damascus Declaration for Democratic Change in October 2005, and went on to join former Vice President Abdulhalim Khaddam in forming the National Salvation Front, which aimed to create a viable democratic alternative to al-Assad’s regime. But in 2009, al-Bayanouni decided to suspend opposition activities and withdraw from the Front in solidarity with the people of Gaza.
With the exception of the controversial decision to suspend opposition activities, al-Shaqfih is likely to continue in the same direction as al-Bayanouni and differences may be more in style rather than in strategy. Al-Shaqfih, like the new Guide of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood elected in January 2010 (Muhammad al-Badei’), 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. Al-Shaqfih’s military background certainly does not mean a return to military confrontation; he said in his first interview with Ash-Sharq al-Awsat on August 8 that the Brotherhood renounces violence and would transform itself into a political party if the Syrian regime would guarantee political freedoms.
It is likely that al-Shaqfih will recruit leadership from his native Hama, replacing the Aleppo faction that dominated the group under al-Bayanouni. The Hama members of the Brotherhood used to be the largest faction in the organization and were known for having a stronger sense of group solidarity than other factions. Finally, the fact that the new Guide lives in Yemen could mean more restrictions on his mobility compared to that of the London-based al-Bayanouni.
Ambiguous Relations with the Syrian Regime
The Syrian regime has not taken serious strides towards political reform—or even economic and administrative reform—despite claiming these issues to be priorities. Its main focus in recent years has been to end the international isolation that it faced (due partially to its policies towards Lebanon, Iraq, and the Palestinians) and it has largely succeeded in this. The Brotherhood tried to take advantage of this situation by suspending opposition activities during the 2009 war on Gaza and showing itself to be on the same side as the regime. But al-Assad ignored the gesture and failed to offer what the Brotherhood had hoped for in return, the repeal of Law 49, which makes membership in the Brotherhood a capital crime.
The new Brotherhood leadership seems still undecided whether to resume opposition officially. In an apparent shift, al-Shaqfih stated in an interview with the Egyptian newspaper al-Masry al-Youm on August 13 that the Brotherhood’s suspension of opposition activities ended when the war in Gaza did. The Brotherhood website, however, maintains that the Consultative Council is committed to suspending its opposition activities and al-Shaqfih seemed to reaffirm that position in his latest interview (AFP, September 2). This contradiction reflects the ambivalence of the Brotherhood and other Syrian dissidents; neither calls for gradual reform, nor escalation, nor the pursuit of comprehensive democratic change have gotten results.
International efforts to reengage the Syrian regime without demanding reform, regional factors unfavorable to democratic change, and restraints on opposition access to the Arab media may lead the Syrian Brotherhood to look increasingly inward. In the longer run, the regime’s continued snub of dissident overtures such as that of the Brotherhood, coupled with its neglect of domestic challenges and rising sectarian and ethnic tension in the country, are likely to marginalize the moderate approach of the Brotherhood and lead the religious trend in Syria toward more extremism.
Najib Ghadbian is an Associate Professor of Political Science and Middle East Studies at the University of Arkansas and author of “The Second Assad Regime: Bashar of Lost Opportunities,” in Arabic (2006).