After three decades in exile, the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood has been working in recent years to rebuild its influence within Syria. The Islamist group’s 2014 leadership elections have been seen as a key test of whether the Brotherhood can make the changes needed to strengthen the organization and boost its role in the country.
While the Brotherhood is often described as one of the most effective forces in Syria’s exiled opposition, it has faced divisions within its ranks. The group’s previous leader, Mohammad Riad al-Shaqfa, completed his four-year term in the summer of 2014 amid low levels of popularity with the base, which blamed him for failing to transform the Brotherhood into a coherent political and military player, among other things.
With internal demands for change growing, the Brotherhood’s leaders in the fall of 2014 called for elections to the Shura Council, the group’s highest decisionmaking body, whose new members then elected leaders for the entire organization. And with its decision on November 11, 2014, the Shura Council sent a clear message that the Brotherhood is finally opening a new chapter in its history.
Mohammad Hikmat Walid, a seventy-year-old UK-educated eye surgeon from Latakia, was selected to be the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood’s new comptroller general. His main competitor for the top job, Hosam Ghadban, a computer engineer from the suburbs of Damascus who is in his forties, was named deputy leader. Unlike previous leaders, Walid, a poet, has no history of violence in the 1980s, and has a good command of English. Ghadban, for his part, will be one of the youngest deputy leaders the group has ever had. And neither hails from Aleppo or Hama—the two traditional power blocs in the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood.
To some members, however, these choices are not a powerful enough signal of change. Many expected the appointment of a younger, charismatic reformer committed to changing the Brotherhood from within by allowing greater transparency in the decisionmaking process and bolstering the role of the youth at all echelons of the organization. But while the elections may not constitute the revolution that these Brothers were hoping for, they do signal several important shifts within the Brotherhood.
A New Balance of Power
Soon after the results of the leadership election were published, Brotherhood officials expressed their satisfaction that the contest had been fought at the level of ideas, and between competing electoral programs. But regional cleavages were at least as important a factor in polarizing the group and in deciding the election’s fate.
The Hama and Aleppo wings of the Brotherhood have been competing for influence since the 1980s. In 2010, elections for the Shura Council led to the victory of the Hama bloc, which also includes figures from Idlib Province and Deir ez-Zor, a city in eastern Syria. This paved the way for the subsequent nomination of Hama strongman Shaqfa as comptroller general. The most recent elections for the Shura Council have now modified this balance of power: the current body is made up of a roughly equal number of figures from the Aleppo and Hama blocs, with a minority of unaligned Muslim Brothers.
These regional rivalries also played out during the contest for the Brotherhood’s top job. The Aleppo bloc initially put forward the candidacy of Aleppine ideologue Zuhair Salem, but withdrew his name in favor of Ghadban, then the head of the Brotherhood’s youth office, who was seen as a stronger candidate. Ghadban hails from the outskirts of Damascus, but he has lived for the past decade in Jordan, where many Brothers fled after the group was outlawed in 1982 following bitter clashes with the regime of Hafez al-Assad. During his time in Jordan, Ghadban befriended major figures from the Aleppine camp who lived there in exile. Walid, for his part, was elected thanks to the votes of the Hama bloc, whose figures could not agree on a name from within their own ranks. All of this suggests the continued relevance of regional rivalries within the group.
Despite that dynamic, the Brotherhood’s new leaders are unlikely to be proxies for their supporters in their respective ‘regional camps.’ In Brotherhood circles, Walid is known for his diplomatic skills and compromising spirit—meaning that he will do his best to prevent the kind of infighting that, to a great extent, paralyzed the group under Shaqfa’s leadership. Walid’s good working relationship with Aleppo’s Ali Sadreddine al-Bayanouni, who served as comptroller general from 1996 to 2010 and was just elected head of the Shura Council, will prove crucial in setting aside internal struggles and focusing on the major challenges awaiting the group.
The Youth Between Hope and Frustration
One of the main challenges facing the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood is the generational renewal it must undergo if it wants to survive as a relevant political force in the Syrian opposition.
Until recently, the group was mainly made up of Islamist militants in their sixties and older who left Syria during the repression of the 1980s. But the 2011 uprisings in Syria changed the equation and attracted many youth to the group’s base. A youth office was created and tasked with organizing a major conference in Istanbul in December 2012 that gathered hundreds of young Brotherhood sympathizers. The youth started organizing as a lobby, pushing the old guard to initiate reforms and make greater room for them in leadership positions. And, not surprisingly, for many of these young Brothers, the election of Walid came as a bitter disappointment.
The new leader seems to be aware that his main internal task will be to keep the youth tightly within the Brotherhood’s orbit by offering them major positions and pointing to a bright future for them within the group. In his first remarks following his election, Walid stressed the importance of bolstering the role of the youth in the organization. But his credibility will to a large extent depend on how much power he decides to devolve to his deputy, Ghadban.
A figure close to the new comptroller general suggests that the two may divide their roles following the model of the CEO/COO relationship—with Walid setting the tone and offering Ghadban room to maneuver and implement decisions on the ground. “It’s going to be a transitional period aimed at training the new generation of leaders,” said this associate of Walid, who did not rule out the possibility that Ghadban would take over the top job in four years. On social media pages affiliated with the Brotherhood, he has already emerged as a visible figure.
Change or More of the Same?
On the ideological front, Walid’s election is not likely to lead to major changes in the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood’s outlook. After decades spent fighting the Assad regime, Brotherhood leaders renounced violence in 2004. They also pledged to reject sectarianism, respect minority rights, and work with other sectors of Syrian society in order to push for regime change in a more inclusive way. Walid has been a supporter of the group’s moderation since the 2000s, and his long-standing commitment to this agenda was rewarded earlier in 2014 when he was elected head of Waad, a moderate, and technically independent, political party comprised of Muslim Brothers, independent Islamists, some secular Sunnis, and even a few Christians and Alawites. In his new position, Walid can be expected to continue to defend the benefits of the Brotherhood’s shift toward centrism.
A statement issued by the Shura Council just after Walid’s election also carried a message of continuity. In it, members stressed their rejection of extremism, which they described as the “enemy of Islam.” But they also asked the U.S.-led international coalition against the Islamic State to focus as well on what they called the terrorism of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. In addition, members of the Shura Council called on the international community to provide high-quality weapons—meaning sophisticated anti-tank and anti-aircraft weapons—to the Syrian rebels. This is in line with positions that the Brotherhood’s leadership has expressed in the past.
But any discussion of ideological continuity hides the vigorous debate taking place within the Brotherhood about what the group should do next. Despite a degree of success in the field of charity and humanitarian relief, some of its other initiatives have met with failure.
In particular, the election of Walid highlights the structural problems Waad faced from the beginning in separating the Brotherhood’s political work from the rest of its activities. The party—formally the National Party for Justice and the Constitution, but known by its acronym, which means “promise” in Arabic—was founded in 2013 as what the Brotherhood hoped would be part of a democratic transition in Syria. But suspicion now runs high that Waad was always acting as a mere political arm for the Islamist organization.
Walid resigned from the party to become the Brotherhood’s comptroller general while insisting that Waad is “not a cover” for the Brotherhood’s activities and is “fully independent.” The Brotherhood’s new leaders will now be faced with the choice of either granting Waad full autonomy—which means the Brotherhood would be forced to leave politics entirely to the party and focus instead on activities such as preaching and charity—or dropping the whole idea and quietly burying the party.
Another area that could be impacted by the selection of Walid and Ghadban is the field of military action. Breaking with tradition, neither man has a military background, and they could review the organization’s policy of supporting the Shields of the Revolution (hay’at duroo al-thawra)—a collection of small- and medium-sized rebel brigades sympathetic to the Brotherhood and mainly influential on the Homs-Aleppo axis in the northwestern part of the country.
Support for the Shields stirred controversy over the group’s role in the fighting and cost the Brotherhood a lot of money, but it failed to bring tangible political or military results. People with close ties to the Brotherhood’s new leaders suggest that they have already started holding a series of workshops with the group’s base, in particular the youth, as well as with non-Brotherhood members aimed at assessing past mistakes and charting a new course of action.
In Turkey’s Orbit
Regionally, Walid’s election is likely to reinforce Turkey’s influence in a Syrian opposition that is otherwise divided between partisans of Qatar and Saudi Arabia. In his early remarks, the new comptroller general thanked the “brotherly and friendly [Turkish] people” and commended the country’s “wise leadership” and its support for the Syrian revolution. As head of Waad, whose political platform is ideologically close to that of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP), Walid enjoyed close ties with Turkish authorities, who have provided strong support for the Syrian opposition. Now that he has become the Brotherhood’s leader, that relationship can be expected to grow even stronger.
At the same time, however, the new heads of the Brotherhood are doing all they can to preserve the truce with Saudi Arabia that has so far spared the organization the tough treatment that other Islamist groups in the region have received from the kingdom. In March 2013, when the kingdom designated the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organization, leaders of the Syrian branch were told by Saudi policymakers that the move would not affect them directly. Walid was a longtime resident of Saudi Arabia and practiced in a Jeddah clinic before his recent move to Istanbul, where he went to be better able to engage in political activities. And he understands the kingdom’s mentality well and knows which redlines the Brotherhood should not cross.
Similarly, Ghadban—who devoted his first remarks as deputy leader to the recent designation by the United Arab Emirates (UAE) of 83 Islamic charities and political parties as terrorist organizations—called the UAE’s move hasty but refrained from overtly criticizing it. Instead, he insisted that brotherly relationships should unite Gulf countries with the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood against Iran’s attempts to build its influence in the region. It remains to be seen, however, whether Saudi Arabia and the UAE will continue treating the Syrian branch of the Brotherhood as a separate case or if they will, instead, start cracking down on the group’s fundraising activities, which mainly take place on their territory.
Walid’s election as the group’s new comptroller general may not quite embody the revolution that many members of Syria’s Muslim Brotherhood were hoping for. A compromising figure who satisfies the major power blocs in the Brotherhood and who belongs to the old guard, he is certainly part of the establishment. But, rather than being a weakness, these traits may actually give him the internal legitimacy needed to initiate a range of reforms within the Brotherhood before the next generation of activists takes over the reins. His approach to politics may also signal the advent of a more politically astute and consensual form of leadership that will be key in weathering the regional storm and improving the group’s image in Syria and abroad.