After years of being side-lined, the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood has suddenly come back into focus due to the recent unrest in the region and the sudden activity of the Syrian opposition. An assessment made by the US Embassy in Damascus and leaked by Wikileaks concluded that the Muslim Brotherhood posed no immediate threat but does this change five years on against the backdrop of regional crisis and unrest?
Recently President Bashar el-Assad offered political detainees, including the Muslim Brotherhood, amnesty in an attempt to dampen the unrest which has beset the country for three months, a gesture that would seem to suggest an acknowledgement of the power of the opposition movements working against the regime.
But exiled Muslim Brotherhood leader, Ali Sadreldin el-Bayanouni said that there are not many details yet about the amnesty except that it covers all members of political movements including the Muslim Brotherhood, but law no. 49 (which provides for a trial for any person proved to be a member of the Muslim Brotherhood) still exists and remains in force. "Therefore, the step of this amnesty is imperfect and incomplete," he concluded.
Al-Bayanouni also considered that this decision is a step to circumvent the demands of the demonstrators, and that it does not mean anything in light of the bloody confrontations that are being carried out by the Syrian regime against the Syrian demonstrators.
Spokesman for the Muslim Brotherhood in Syria, Zuheir Salem, noted that “The amnesty is useless as this decree is confiscated by the law No 49 promulgated in 1980. It criminalises the Muslim Brotherhood without any charges”
Indeed, a closer look at the terms of the amnesty granted by Bashar el-Assad would seem to reveal a misuse of the word, the term actually referring to a sentence reduction for some crimes. Syrian political analyst at Chatham House, Rime Allaf, told me this was another empty gesture from the regime designed to placate the protesters and majority Sunni population but did not equate to a recognition of any authority held by the Brotherhood themselves.
So, is the Muslim Brotherhood as influential in Syria as some opposition figures claim them to be? Cables sent by the US embassy in Damascus to Washington would seem to suggest that “While there has been a rise in Islamism (with some fundamentalism) in Syria in the past 20 years, we assess that the potential political influence of the Muslim Brotherhood in Syria has been exaggerated.” The cable goes on to note that “ the most striking constraint on the potential appeal of any repackaged Muslim Brotherhood grouping is the heavy minority make-up (35 percent) of the Syrian population that is generally opposed to any Islamist domination.”
But despite a large minority group, Syria is largely Sunni Muslim and evidence has shown a steady turn towards Islam in the absence of political alternatives. Following the massacre of Hama in 1980 and the crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood, the government launched a conciliatory campaign of promoting its own brand of Islam- It encouraged the building of some 80,000 new mosques. It also established the ‘Assad Institute for Memorizing the Koran’ in various cities and governorates, and over 22 higher-education institutions for teaching Islam. The government also encouraged setting up regional Sharia schools, in the governorate of Al-Jazeera, the Al-Khaznawi school was founded; in Aleppo the Sheikh Ahmed Hassan and Sheikh Abu al-Qaaqaa schools; in Damascus the Abu al-Nour complex and the Sheikh Mohammed Said Ramadan Hassoun and Sheikh Mohammed Habash study circles. Also in Damascus, the government created the Sheika Munira al-Qaisi complex, named after a famous Damascene lady, in which about 25,000 girls are enrolled.
These religious institutions, which total 584 in number, provide health care and food assistance to the public, and 280 of them offered comprehensive daily services to about a million people - and to about two million during the month of Ramadan. They also offer public religious instruction, either through daily lessons or through Friday prayer sermons. In order to bolster its Muslim credentials, the regime suppressed secular leftist groups, with the aim of upholding the Baath Party as the only organization worthy of that description in Syria. The government’s support for an ‘official’ Islamic ideology and the younger generation’s disenchantment with politics led many to turn to religious schools and mosques, both as a reaction against official policies and as a means of coming to grips with the economic and social problems besetting them. The annual population growth rate in Syria has dropped from around 3.4 percent a decade ago to around 2.4 percent today. However, those born during the population boom of two decades ago are the youths of today. Some 220,000 individuals are entering the labour market every year, and the government is incapable of providing work for them. According to official statistics, there are a million unemployed in Syria, about 500,000 of whom are registered at the government's employment bureaus. The danger, however, lies in the fact that 80 percent of these are between the ages of 15 and 24. When limited to the ideology of a single political doctrine and facing socioeconomic setbacks, many young people turn to religion, which, at least, offers solid solutions and spiritual comfort.
External regional and international factors, also contributed to the growth of Islamism in Syria, since during each of the past three decades major events helped further entrench Islamic dogma. The fight against the Muslim Brotherhood coincided with the onset of the Islamic revolution in Iran at the end of the 1970's, and, subsequently, the Syrian government allied itself with Tehran against an Iraqi regime with which, in theory, it shared the same secular nationalist Ba’athist doctrine. Later on, at the end of the 1980's, the U.S.S.R. and the Eastern Bloc, which supported the Syrian regime, collapsed. This not only weakened Syria's strategic alliances, but also helped undermine the credibility of Socialism and its achievements. The end of Communism, the failure of Socialist regimes to offer solutions to the economic and social ills of their own societies, and the failure of powerful ruling parties to accomplish much externally or internally, coincided with the mounting successes of Islamic parties. The Syrian public watched closely the achievements of Hamas and Islamic Jihad during the two Palestinian intifadas. This helped bolster Islam in Syrian society and this was further promoted by the role played by Hizbullah in ousting Israel from Southern Lebanon also helped entrench a belief that "Islam is the solution."
But does this mean that Syria is heading for an Islamist takeover? Make no mistake, there’s a possibility of an Islamist takeover and an ethnic conflict in Syria, but a number of factors suggest otherwise.
As mentioned, the regime’s promotion of an ‘official’ Islamic ideology and brutal suppression of Islamic opposition would suggest that any Islam based opposition movements, including the Muslim Brotherhood, would be very disorganized.
President Assad’s efforts to court moderate Islamists –associated with the Sunni merchant class- has very much allied them with the regime. The government has been strongly anti-American, anti-Israel, allied with Iran and supportive of Hamas and HezbollahIndeed, the Jordanian Muslim Brotherhood declared a few years ago that it was not permissible to oppose the Assad regime because of these policies and Hassan Nasrallah’s recent speech showed no condemnation for the atrocities committed by the regime in suppressing the protests.
Most importantly, Syria is a very diverse country. While countries such as Egypt are about 90 percent Sunni Muslim, the figure for Syria is about 60 percent. There are Alawites, Christians, Druze, and Kurds, of which only the Kurds are Sunnis and they have a lot of nationalist feeling against the regime.
The Sunni Muslims, the constituency for revolutionary Islamism, also provide a large part of the middle class, secular-oriented, pro-democracy movement, thus providing a strong alternative leadership. That middle class would seem to be a pro-democratic, relatively more urbanized population.
It would seem that Syria is certainly headed for more turbulent times but whether the Muslim Brotherhood will have a role in any future administration is greatly dependent on the outcome of the current wave of unrest. Will Syria be heading towards an Iraq or Lebanon style of chaotic sectarianism or will opposition figures, including the Brotherhood, be able to harness the momentum created by weeks of violence and provide a cohesive and reasoned alternative to the Assad regime?