x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

Is Brotherhood leader in Syria really moderate?

The Muslim Brotherhood, which has emerged as a powerful opposition player, has been criticised for what critics regard as its Islamist vision for Syria.

ISTANBUL // Mohammed Riad Al Shaqfa still remembers growing up in Syria, when his father, a Sunni imam, would regularly invite a Christian priest to their home.

The man who today is the leader of Syria's Muslim Brotherhood, said the memory is reflected in his vision of Syria's future.

"After the removal of this corrupted regime, Syria will go back to its nature, because Syrians are very dynamic, very inclusive, they do not discriminate against each other," said Mr Al Shaqfa, a civil engineer who has spent three decades outside the country, in Iraq, Yemen, Sudan and now Turkey.

"People will live together as fellow citizens. It's only [President Bashar] Al Assad and his father before him, who brought the concept of sectarianism and dividing Syria."

The Muslim Brotherhood, which has emerged as a powerful opposition player, has been criticised for what critics regard as its Islamist vision of Syria that is not shared by most Syrians.

Critics, including some secular activists, have also accused the Brotherhood of harbouring extremist views and of dominating the main opposition Syrian National Council (SNC) - something the group has denied.

In a plan announced last week, the Brotherhood - the main Islamist bloc within the opposition - pledged to share power and push for a democratic, pluralist Syria.

Molham Al Drobi, a member of the Brotherhood's executive committee, even went so as far to say Syria's next president may not necessarily be a Muslim, as stipulated in the current constitution.

"She can be a Christian woman," he told The National in an interview in Istanbul. "She can, but she has to win the elections. Any Syrian citizen can be a president."

But some critics believe the group is simply speaking the right language to appeal to a broader base. Kamal Al Labwani, one of several prominent opposition figures to distance themselves from the SNC in the last month, reiterated his belief that the council is taking orders from the Brotherhood.

"The Brotherhood doesn't have any history of democracy. They are lying to reach the authority, then they will forget every promise," he said. "We have to make a real balance and we will not close our eyes. The Muslim Brotherhood plans to control Syria."

But, while dismissing the accusations, Mr Al Drobi - who is also a member of the SNC's international relations committee - said the Brotherhood should have the opportunity to prove themselves.

"In the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, we never said things and did not do it," he said. "All what I have said, I believe in it and I will stand behind it and you can hold me accountable to that document in the future. We have not done that as a tactical move."

While questions remain about what Syria will look like in the future, the opposition is still grappling with the immediate issue of ending the violence on the ground that has killed more than 9,000 people.

Like other groups, the Brotherhood is urging the international community to help the armed uprising against the regime and for concrete steps be taken. Mr Al Assad needs to know the international community "means business", said Mr Al Drobi.

"If they don't want to do this [intervene militarily], we would like them to arm our Free Syrian Army," he said. "We will do the job ourselves, but we need the ways and means to do that."

But, despite the continuing bloodshed and lack of international consensus about how to bring about an end to the year-long crisis, the Brotherhood's 68-year-old leader, Mr Al Shaqfa, is certain the regime will fall.

"It's happening for sure, but it's going to take some time and there will be some sacrifices," he said. "The Syrian people are paying the price and they will keep paying the price until the end. We are not regretting and we are not going back."

The Muslim Brotherhood has a bloody history in Syria. In the 1980s, the group led a revolt against the regime of Hafez Al Assad, Mr Al Assad's father. The culmination of the government's response was an assault on the city of Hama in 1982, in which up to 25,000 people were killed.

Many of the Brotherhood's figures, including Mr Al Shaqfa, remain in exile. The group is still illegal in Syria and membership can result in a death sentence.

Today, Syria's Brotherhood is an "evolving" organisation, according to Mr Al Drobi. There are two women, or "sisters", among the 17-member leadership. Female members have the same voting rights as men. But, there is not a clear picture of how broad the Brotherhood's appeal is inside Syria. Some critics have said the group has little support on the ground, but Mr Al Drobi disagrees.

"If a free election took place today in Syria, I would expect [the Brotherhood to win] somewhere between 20 to 30 per cent [of seats]," he said. His estimate is based on Syria's Sunni Muslim population, at about 60 per cent, and his description of the Brotherhood as occupying the middle ground among Syrian Islamist groups.

Offshoots of the movement in Egypt and Tunisia have recently emerged with greater political influence after the Arab Spring uprisings.

"People do not fear extremists, because extremists don't have logic," Mr Al Drobi said. "People fear competition from those who have strong reasoning and a strong political programme, because these guys can win elections."