In early November, Syrian Muslim Brotherhood officials announced that the leadership of their new, “independent” political party would hold a press conference in Istanbul to unveil its composition, program, and overarching goals. Spokesmen for the National Party for Justice and the Constitution, also known as the Waad Party for its Arabic acronym, which means “promise,” were about to announce that their platform would be nationalist rather than Islamist and that the party would include several non-Sunni members. As detailed in this article by Carnegie’s Yezid Sayigh and myself, it was a groundbreaking political initiative for the Muslim Brotherhood.
But then, nothing happened. The planned conference on November 12 came and went, and the party was never publicly launched. When I asked a Brotherhood spokesman, he said the delay was an unfortunate product of Waad’s “lack of experience on the administrative side.” However, a long and in-depth interview with one of the party’s founders has uncovered more details about the party’s emergence and its complicated relationships with the Muslim Brotherhood and the Turkish government.
The Story Behind Waad
The creation of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood’s political wing had long been in the pipeline. The idea dates back to the early 2000s, when the organization’s then leader, Ali Sadreddine al-Bayanouni, enacted profound organizational and ideological changes to the Brotherhood. “The initiative was discussed and approved by the organization’s Shura Council about seven years ago,” explained one of Waad’s founders. “The idea, however, was put on hold, as we felt that the environment was not right—we thought it would not be workable to do this from outside of Syria.”
The idea resurfaced when the Syrian revolution erupted in March 2011 and began to seem urgent when, a year later, most observers argued that the regime was about to collapse. “By July 2012 we thought that the revolution would be over soon. We thus felt that we should provide Syrians with a clear centrist (wasatiya) alternative to the regime,” the Waad official recounted. “The Syrian Muslim Brotherhood’s leadership assigned a small follow-up committee made up of Mohammed [Hikmat] Walid, now Waad’s head, as well as Ahmad Kanaan and Mohammad Zuhair al-Khatib. It began to put ideas on paper by formulating a political program as well as internal rules that would regulate the party’s decisionmaking process.”
In June 2013, the founding congress for the Waad Party was finally held in Istanbul. Some 100 delegates participated in this closed-door meeting, including some Christians, Alawites, and Kurds, a few of whom were elected to Waad’s leadership. But this meeting was never followed by a public announcement of the party’s creation. Instead, it took the newly elected Waad leadership five months to schedule a press conference, set for mid-November. This delay seems to have been the product of tension at three levels: within Waad itself, between Waad and the Syrian Brotherhood, and, finally, between Waad and the Turkish government.
Internal Tension in Waad
The debates inside Waad have focused on its ideological platform. Waad’s political program had to satisfy the party’s core Islamist constituency while also being inclusive enough to attract some members of religious and ethnic minorities. Its leadership eventually decided to insist on the nationalist rather than Islamist nature of the party and to use religiously neutral terms such as “democracy” rather than “shura” (“consultation”).
“Yes, some Muslim Brothers and other Islamists initially had concerns about our political platform,” acknowledged one of Waad’s founders. “There were some disputes on key concepts, but Waad’s leadership insisted that we should make the centrist dimension of the party very clear and unambiguous—anyone wishing to join us will have to accept this identity.”
Disagreements With the Brotherhood
Waad’s announcement was also slowed down by its relationship to the Brotherhood itself, which is represented in party institutions by a one-third quota. The main disagreements seem to have been over the timing of the announcement and over the division of labor between the Brotherhood and Waad.
“We expect that the Brotherhood will withdraw from the political scene soon, so Waad can get involved in the National Coalition [for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces] and the Syrian National Council,” said one of the party’s founders, referring to the two main Syrian opposition groups in exile, “but the Brothers are independent from us, and we cannot control their decisions.” He summed it up this way, “We’re a newborn trying to grow up who is also involved in his father’s business—so of course differences between the two will surface and there will be conflicts.”
Turkey Gets Involved
When Waad and the Syrian Brotherhood finally agreed on the November 12 launch date, it was soon postponed again—this time at the instigation of Turkish authorities. The Waad official explains, “We sent invitations to many observers to attend our launching press conference, including prominent members of Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party [AKP]. A few days later, our liaison with the AKP in Istanbul told us that the Turkish authorities feel they don’t know enough about us—our background and the details of our political program in particular. They asked us to send them translated versions of all our official documents. We discussed all of this with them in a recent meeting, which was positive, but we did not agree yet on a precise new launching date.”
The AKP’s interest in clarifying Waad’s composition and platform may be genuine. But the timing of these concerns makes many Syrian Brothers and Waad members suspicious. Recently, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu visited Iran, where he praised the conclusion of a nuclear deal between Tehran and Western powers. He hailed it as the beginning of a new era in which Turkey and Iran could become “the backbone of regional stability.” This visit came on the heels of a promise of improved economic ties and closer security cooperation between Ankara and Tehran, as evidenced by the Turkish secret services’ recent decision to disclose to Tehran the identities of Iranians participating in an Israeli-sponsored spy ring operating out of Turkey. Against this backdrop, the Iranian ambassador to Turkey proposed that Tehran could help in healing the rift between Ankara and Damascus. Is it too far-fetched to suggest that the Turkish government feels concerned that Waad’s launch in Istanbul might disturb its own rapprochement with Iran and Syria?
“We took the AKP’s advice to postpone our announcement in good faith,” said the Waad official, but he added that “some around us nonetheless question the nature and timing of this demand.” Time alone will tell. Waad officials are now preparing a new launching ceremony, which should take place in late December or early January—at least that’s the plan.