Uncertain Future for the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood’s Political Party

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Summary
Syria’s newest Islamist party has admirably liberal ambitions. But it lacks the substance to become a viable, functioning party able to survive the current conflict.
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With the death and destruction in Syria ongoing, the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood is forming a political party, the National Party for Justice and the Constitution. Known by its acronym, Waad—“promise” in Arabic—the party is meant to represent the Brotherhood, currently in exile, in an eventual democratic transition. Describing itself as “a national party with an Islamic framework [marjaiyyah] that adopts democratic mechanisms in its programs,” Waad is in theory open to all segments of Syrian society. 

The Brotherhood’s concern to showcase its commitment to inclusive, pluralist politics and to reiterate its identity as a “centrist” Islamist organization is commendable given the growing radicalization and sectarianism in Syria. But delivering on its promise will prove a tough challenge. Religious and ethnic minorities as well as secular Sunni Muslims are likely to dismiss Waad as a mere facade for the Brotherhood. Conversely, conservative Sunnis, including some of the Brotherhood’s own members, and militant Islamists will dislike Waad’s multiconfessional and ideologically heterogeneous self-image and distrust the presence of non-Sunnis and non-Arabs in its leadership.

The Brotherhood will face even tougher challenges in the event of a democratic transition in Syria. In order to shake off its image as a secretive organization controlling Waad behind the scenes, it will have to relinquish political activism to the new party and focus its own membership exclusively on fulfilling its core Islamist mission of social and religious proselytizing, dawa

Clearly the Brotherhood has other priorities as long as the Syrian conflict persists, and so it will not undertake such a radical transformation anytime soon. But this reality eliminates any hope that Waad can build itself into an autonomous political organization with its own grassroots membership in the meantime. 

Weak Support and Conflicting Messages

The Brotherhood’s own members are divided about Waad. Some regard the party as a mistimed gesture that will undermine the organization’s ongoing efforts to gain influence within the armed rebellion on the ground, where it has recently become less circumspect about its role in supporting like-minded rebel groups. And the fact that Brotherhood leaders who favor the new party see it as a means to project moderation ahead of possible negotiations with the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in Geneva deepens the suspicions of the dissenting minority. 

Conservative members, moreover, fought hard against including the term “democracy” in Waad’s political program, insisting that the Islamic notion of shura—consultation with those who will be affected policies or their representatives—adequately embodies participatory, pluralist politics. Not only did conservatives lose this battle but, based on its official documents, it is hard to identify Waad as Islamist at all. With the exception of asserting the need for “judicial rulings to be compatible with Islamic sharia,” the party’s political program, issued on July 10, is a model of liberal—even secular—values that effectively relegates Islam to the status of a cultural asset and a bond with other Arab and Islamic states.

The Syrian Brotherhood’s leader, Comptroller General Mohammad Riad al-Shaqfa, has so far contained internal disagreement. But his term ends in July 2014, and the selection process for a new leader could well bring these rifts to the fore.

Waad has already run into difficulties, albeit of another kind. It was formed in Istanbul in June 2013, but its announcement was delayed because, according to one report, the “Turkish authorities requested that the party’s principles and political program be clarified.” A new public launch date was set for November 12, but, as Waad leader Mohammad Hikmat Walid confirmed, Turkey’s governing Justice and Development Party requested a further delay. 

Waad may have to wait indefinitely: faced with growing domestic opposition to its Syria policy and worsening relations with Saudi Arabia, which is implacably hostile to the Muslim Brotherhood, the Turkish authorities appear leery of backing the new political initiative. Their support is necessary because Turkey is the Brotherhood’s only secure base in the countries neighboring Syria, offering a safe meeting place for the movement’s leaders and hosting its offices. As a newly formed party without a presence of its own inside Syria, Waad is heavily dependent on Turkish goodwill. 

A Broad Church

Waad has had a long gestation. A few weeks before its planned launch, the Muslim Brotherhood’s official spokesman, Zuhair Salem, revealed that the movement had been thinking about forming a party for several years. According to politburo member Mohammad Zuhair al-Khatib, the Brotherhood postponed a decision because it believed that the party should be formed inside Syria, which was wholly impossible until the 2011 uprising. Late in 2012, the Brotherhood leadership informed a conference of its youth wing that it was reviving the idea, and in January 2013 a preparatory committee was instructed to draft Waad’s core principles and internal statutes.

The official ideology of the proposed party changed in the meantime. As recently as December 2012, the Brotherhood leadership spoke of establishing an “Islamic party.” But growing radicalization in Syria apparently prompted revision toward a more consensual platform. When Syrian Brotherhood leader al-Shaqfa publicly announced the intention to form a party in January 2013, he described it as having “a nationalist identity” and being “open to anyone who wants to join.” 

This ideological orientation was confirmed by the 100 “founding fathers,” drawn from diverse backgrounds, who established Waad in Istanbul in June. They pledged transitional justice and committed to parliamentary pluralism in a future Syria, formal separation of powers, independence of the judiciary, and special attention to women and youth. The founding conference also endorsed the unity and integrity of Syria’s territory and people, upheld “just causes, led by the Palestinian cause,” and promised openness to the rest of the world in ways that “secure Syria’s interests and support its sovereignty.” 

Despite its founding principles, Waad has struggled to strike a convincing balance between its declared Islamist and nationalist identities. The Syrian Brotherhood’s former comptroller general, Ali Sadreddine al-Bayanouni, again labeled Waad an “Islamic party” in July. But a source close to Waad’s leadership says it “is based on nationalist principles, and Islam is seen more as a cultural heritage and referent than as a strict ideology.” Speaking earlier in the year, al-Khatib argued repeatedly that the new party’s “Islamic framework” was intended to offer “religiosity to those who want it and culture and civilization to those who want it.” 

Others point out that Walid, who was one of five deputies to al-Shaqfa until he relinquished that role to head Waad, is originally from Latakia, a city noted for confessional diversity. Walid, they say, is widely respected beyond Islamic circles for his “moderation” and “open spirit.” The choice of a Christian priest, Nabil Kassis, as Walid’s deputy is also meant to reinforce the image of Waad as a broad church for all Syrians, as is the claim that the party had Alawite and Kurdish members in its founding council.

To underline this message, the internal statutes approved at Waad’s founding in June stipulate that Muslim Brothers may make up no more than one-third of the new party’s total membership. “Independent Islamists” are to form another third of party membership, while “nationalist figures” of a more liberal background—as well as Christian, Kurdish, and Alawite personalities—will constitute the remaining third. Al-Khatib, who has conducted much of the public debate about Waad, insisted in May that the three-way allocation of membership does not amount to “a quota system.” But he admitted that finding the “nationalist one-third” was proving difficult, as “some believe that the Brothers seek nationalist personalities as mere window dressing.” 

This difficulty raises the question of whether Waad can ever attract significant numbers of non-Sunnis, non-Arabs, and non-Islamists. Its current struggle to do so could be no more than a normal teething problem for an untried political contender; al-Khatib revealed that “many of those . . . [the Brotherhood] contacted had already made their arrangements with currents and alliances and movements that they did not wish to leave for the new party.” 

But he also candidly noted that “one of the hardest matters today is persuading large sectors of the country to join a large, strong party as ordinary members, not as leaders, and to be patient for years as ordinary members without clear hope of becoming leaders or officials.” In response, al-Khatib sought to persuade his audience that “based on what happened in Morocco, Libya, Egypt, and Turkey, [Waad] will be the principal party in the new Syria.” 

Al-Khatib was speaking in January 2013. Since then, the Egyptian president, Mohamed Morsi, was overthrown and the challenges to governing Islamist parties in the other countries al-Khatib mentioned—as well as in Tunisia—have grown. Those developments have seriously tempered the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood’s confidence. And the notion of building Waad by recruiting leading personalities—nationalist or otherwise—reflects a peculiarly old-fashioned view of how to build a modern, membership-based party that will engage in fundamentally new kinds of politics in a democratic Syria. 

Separating the Siamese Twins

The Muslim Brotherhood already faces an uphill struggle in trying to reassure Syrians of its aims with Waad and to dispel notions that the Brotherhood and the party are joined at the hip. In a tweet on his personal account in early November, Comptroller General al-Shaqfa confirmed that Waad would be “close to the Muslim Brotherhood,” but other Brotherhood officials have stressed Waad’s autonomy. Brotherhood spokesman Salem insisted in mid-October that the new party “will be neither a facade nor a political arm” of the Brotherhood, an assurance reiterated a month later by Waad head Walid. 

These statements were also intended to respond to demands by Brotherhood members who have campaigned for the creation of an independent political party for some time. The youth wing has been particularly vocal. “We didn’t want the Egyptian model in which the Freedom and Justice Party [the Brotherhood’s parliamentary vehicle] was in effect the mirror of the Brotherhood,” explained a leading voice among the youth, “We saw that it clearly failed.” Prominent Brotherhood figures had been openly critical of the Freedom and Justice Party’s political performance up to the ouster of Morsi and had warned that his deepening unpopularity would reflect negatively on the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood. The organization should have pursued national consensus and compromise more actively, they argued. 

For the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, according to the youth leader, the lesson was that “we . . . need a party that appeals to a broad constituency. This of course means that the Brotherhood is going to have to start doing politics outside of its comfort zone and to compromise. It’s a gamble.” 

A formal quota system, however, is not the solution. Limiting the Brotherhood’s membership seems a good first step toward ensuring Waad’s independence. But the rigid system adopted presents more problems than it solves. It may limit Waad’s appeal to grassroots activists at a time when the Arab Spring has given birth to loose, spontaneous, and sometimes volatile forms of political engagement and organization. 

Monitoring membership to maintain quotas sits awkwardly with democratic practice. To refuse Muslim Brothers who wish to join Waad because the one-third ceiling has already been reached penalizes latecomers and presumes that the Brotherhood will constantly scrutinize membership lists. Maintaining the one-third proportion of Brotherhood members in Waad would presumably require increasing or culling their number as the party’s strength fluctuates, an unwieldy process that would reinforce the image of Waad as a Brotherhood clone. Moreover, the Syrian conflict is blurring the lines between the Brotherhood’s formal membership and “supporting members” and sympathizers. Should these supporters, too, seek membership in Waad, the Brotherhood could inadvertently swallow up its own creation.

The Brotherhood appears reluctant to grapple with the implications. It has endorsed a statute that prohibits its members from joining Waad if they have a leadership position within the Brotherhood, but it allows dual general membership in both organizations. Paradoxically, Waad’s internal statutes prohibit simultaneous membership in any other political party, which means that the party cannot meet the one-third quota promised to the Brotherhood without violating its own rule. The Brotherhood might argue, as sister branches in other Arab countries have done, that the rule does not apply to its member because it is a civil society group rather than a political party, but this argument convinces nobody outside its own ranks. 

The Muslim Brotherhood could resolve this particular problem by similarly prohibiting dual membership. But this goes to the heart of its real dilemma: How to create a parliamentary party that is genuinely open to all while maintaining a separate inner core or “mother” organization that influences policymaking while pursuing its fundamental agenda of dawa outside the democratic multiparty arena? 

A Promise That Cannot Be Kept

Muslim Brotherhood branches in other Arab countries have diverged in their responses to the same dilemma. The Moroccan Justice and Development Party lies at one end of the spectrum, ideologically close to the local Brotherhood branch but genuinely independent politically. Its success in governing the country looks increasingly tentative. At the other end is Egypt’s Freedom and Justice Party, which remained tightly controlled by the Brotherhood and was effectively outlawed after Morsi’s ouster, and Jordan’s Islamic Action Front, which was eventually swallowed up by its mother organization. Tunisia’s Ennahda lies in between, striving to be both a Brotherhood dawa organization and a parliamentary party representing diverse Islamist strands. As a result, its unity and cohesion are strained to the limit. 

The Syrian Muslim Brotherhood has gone further than its sister branches in presenting Waad as its new multisectarian and multiethnic face in a remarkably diverse society. But it has even further to go before Waad acquires real substance as a credible, autonomous political organization. 

This will be extremely difficult as long as Syria’s armed conflict continues. The Brotherhood will not easily shed the rigid core structure and clandestine habits that allowed it to survive thirty years of exile. Nor will it easily resolve internal tensions between those who favor a political solution and those who advocate a military one. Additionally, the mere fact that Waad emphasizes ideological moderation and diverse membership may alienate militant Islamist rebel groups that are currently allied with the Brotherhood inside Syria. 

The lines of ideological confrontation are already being drawn. Waad’s political program asserts that all citizens should be subject to “the principle of democratic management, that is the sovereignty of the people.” This collides head-on with the official political platform issued on November 22 by the Islamic Front— recently formed by the largest Islamist rebel groups in Syria unaffiliated with al-Qaeda—which emphasizes that “sovereignty will belong to the law of God” in a new Syria. The Islamic Front, which calls for a “guiding Islamic state,” explicitly distances itself from secularism, “democracy and its parliaments,” and “the civil state,” a term favored by the Muslim Brotherhood specifically because it navigates between the more contentious “secular” and “Islamist” labels.

A future transition to democracy will pose additional challenges. Brotherhood officials insist that Waad will be free to adopt policies and legislation that diverge from their own preferences. But can Muslim Brothers in Waad truly be loyal to both party and mother organization? Who will really be in control? 

More importantly, many will expect the Brotherhood to resolve these questions either by turning itself into a parliamentary party that pursues dawa but is completely open to all or by abolishing its presence as a political organization in order to pursue dawa as a civil society body. In this view, the Brotherhood cannot maintain an inner organizational core that is neither transparent nor accountable to the public while wielding actual control over a nominally separate parliamentary vehicle such as Waad or any successor party. 

Failure to resolve this tension will provoke suspicions of a “hidden” agenda of the sort that has bedeviled the Brotherhood in other Arab countries while undermining its civilian party, which will inevitably been seen as a facade. This two-track approach may be understandable in the context of the ongoing armed conflict in Syria, but maintaining it during democratic transition will be destructive.

Even then, whether Waad can survive as a shared platform for religious and liberal elements once the unavoidable debate over the role of Islamic sharia in Syria takes place is uncertain. The Brotherhood’s more conservative constituency, a minority at present, could quickly grow when the organization returns to a radicalized Syria, bringing Waad’s moderation into question. After all, the conservatives could argue that, given the claims of Brotherhood officials such as spokesman Mulhem al-Droubi that the organization would win up to 25 percent of the votes were Syria to have free elections, there is little reason to dilute the Brotherhood’s cache. Under such pressures, tensions between the conservative and more liberal wings, so far kept safely behind the scenes, could fragment the organization. 

A Party Before Its Time?

All these questions lie in the future, and the Muslim Brotherhood leadership may be forgiven for regarding them as remote, if not abstract. Waad head Walid acknowledged as much when he argued that “everyone said that the priority now is to support the Syrian people, not form parties, but even if the current moment is difficult and critical this should not prevent us from thinking about Syria in the future.” 

The Muslim Brotherhood may genuinely seek to establish a viable, inclusive new party, but the ambiguity about Waad’s purpose and prospects bode poorly for it. The Brotherhood has never shaken off the perception that it pulls all the strings in the opposition’s exile platform, the Syrian National Council, and skeptical observers believe it will do the same with Waad. The attempt to make up for Waad’s lack of presence on the ground in Syria by stacking it with “nationalist figures” and other worthy “personalities” further reduces confidence in its ability to survive as an autonomous party. 

This is a shame, because Waad’s political program is an impressively detailed, 91-page document that touches transparently on every issue of importance to Syria’s political, economic, social, and administrative development in an admirably liberal framework. But the harsh truth is that Waad lacks the substance to become a viable, functioning party able to survive the current conflict. Instead, it will probably join the long list of new parties formed in Syria and opposition platforms established in exile since 2011 that have ended up as little more than talking shops. The Muslim Brotherhood will need a parliamentary vehicle exactly like Waad to participate in an eventual democratic transition, but Waad is almost certainly a promise before its time.

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Source http://carnegie-mec.org/2013/12/09/uncertain-future-for-syrian-muslim-brotherhood-s-political-party/gvot

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