The Syrian Muslim Brotherhood has often been branded as one of the most influential actors in exiled Syrian opposition politics, but it may not be as cohesive as most people think. A recent statement authored by a self-described “group of sons of the Muslim Brotherhood” criticizes the leadership’s handling of politics over the past three years.
The declaration was written anonymously, which led some in the Brotherhood’s leadership to immediately question its authenticity and dismiss it as mere smear. “When they voice concerns, Muslim Brothers are usually brave enough to mention their names,” I’m told by Mulhem al-Droubi, the Brotherhood’s spokesman.
But whether authentic or not, the statement reveals real grievances. There is growing momentum for change within the Muslim Brotherhood, and it is perhaps no surprise that this declaration comes a few weeks before the group is to hold internal elections. Is the Brotherhood on the verge of having its own internal revolution?
A Manifesto for Change
The statement is very clear in its criticism of the Brotherhood’s current leadership, slamming the “excessive” degree of pragmatism it has displayed in recent times. This is a concern I have heard many times in private conversations with Syrian Brothers, in particular when it comes to dealings with the broader opposition and plans for a transitional government in Syria.
According to the statement, the Brotherhood’s leadership “tends to ally with personalities and groups that seek a political settlement with the regime and that have strong ties to regional and international powers, while it reduces its interaction and work with those revolutionary forces that are working to overthrow the regime using all means.”
Mistakes in the National Coalition
The anonymous writers seem particularly angry that the Brotherhood has hurt its position through decisions made regarding the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, an exile opposition body. Recently, the Brotherhood backed an expansion of the National Coalition, and it then supported the reelection of its president, Ahmad al-Jarba, who is closely aligned with Saudi Arabia.
According to the statement, “the group worked on expanding the National Coalition, time after time, until the supporters of the revolution became a marginalized minority. The Coalition now consists of a large block that bears the thought of the [National] Coordinating Body [for Democratic Change, a coalition of nonarmed opposition parties and figures based in Syria], as well as personalities that are extreme in their secularism and in their communal and sectarian seclusion.”
The conclusion is bitter: “The group supported corrupt personalities to lead our people at a historic moment such as this.”
Attack on Alleged Proxy Forces
The political strategy used by the Brotherhood’s leadership also comes under scrutiny. “The group pursued a method of entering opposition coalitions relying on two teams: one consisting of official members of the group, who are led by [the Brotherhood’s deputy leader] Mohammad Farouk Tayfour, and a camouflaged team consisting of representatives of small entities linked to the group; these are headed by people who are committed to the line of the group but are not officially members.”
As examples of the latter kind of Brotherhood proxies, the statement mentions Ahmad Ramadan’s National Action Group, an Islamist-nationalist organization, and Nazir Hakim’s Commission for the Protection of Civilians, a group created to provide material support to armed resistance groups inside Syria that is linked to the Muslim Brotherhood.
Controversies regarding the Ikhwani (Brotherhood) nature of these two groups aside, the criticism reflects an important recent debate within the Brotherhood. It pits those who think that the group works better undercover against those who believe that it’s more helpful—and in the end, more productive—to be transparent about political affiliations.
The Statement’s Significance
The statement is important for two main reasons: its wording and its timing.
It comes across as an unusually harsh criticism aimed at the Brotherhood’s current leadership, but the authors make it clear that they believe in the Brotherhood. In their view, any deterioration in the group’s reputation is because of leaders who are “making every effort to improve their image among regional and international powers without doing much to improve their image among the Syrian people.” Some of these leaders are accused of being “obsessed with the fear of leaving the spotlight” and of seeking “positions and benefits.”
Normally, frustrations of that sort would be quietly dealt with through the group’s internal consultative and judicial institutions. If genuine, this is the first time in years that such a critical statement has been released by “rogue” Muslim Brothers.
The timing of its publication also lends importance to the statement. It came only hours after the Brotherhood set up a committee to “heal the rift” within the National Coalition. This rift erupted after the recent reelection of Ahmad al-Jarba, sparking the resignation of 40 coalition members, many of whom opposed Jarba’s policy of participation in the Geneva II Syria peace conference. The Brotherhood’s leadership had first announced that it would not participate at Geneva, but then it backed Jarba’s reelection.
One group of Muslim Brothers has been against Brotherhood participation in the National Coalition from the very beginning, and they now feel vindicated by the group’s political problems and seemingly contradictory positions.
Reconfiguration of the Leadership
The result of this looming power struggle should be known fairly soon. Internal elections are due in the next few weeks to elect representatives to the Brotherhood’s ruling body, the Shura Council, which will then designate a new leader by next summer.
For decades now, struggles for leadership within the Syrian Brotherhood have pitted two rival wings with different ideological priorities, the so-called Hama and Aleppo factions, against each other. The current leadership, headed by Riad al-Shaqfa, is a coalition that includes both wings. Interestingly enough, the anonymous statement targets prominent figures from both camps, such as Farouk Tayfour of Hama and Hassan Hashemi, the political bureau president of Aleppo.
This suggests that a network made up of new allegiances and alliances may be emerging within the group. It could, perhaps, become a major power bloc in the next internal elections, leading to some surprising results.
A Challenge From “Revolutionary” Forces?
While much of the leadership has remained the same for three decades, the Brotherhood itself has changed a lot over the past three years. Both the size and the nature of its constituency have been transformed by the Syrian revolution. In addition to new recruits in Syria, who are mainly based in the smaller towns and suburbs close to “liberated” urban centers, the group has witnessed a significant rise in the number of young members, as well as a return of veteran Muslim Brothers, who had been more or less inactive until the revolution.
Ideologically and politically, new trends are also under way. The pragmatic or “inclusive” line that seeks to engage with the whole Syrian opposition—regardless of its political, sectarian, or ethnic affiliations—is increasingly being challenged by a more distinctively Sunni line, which seeks stronger grassroots support and may eventually be more inclined to populism.
Most Brotherhood members seem appalled by the anonymous statement’s harsh wording and public nature, yet many nonetheless agree that the time for serious internal change has come. And when the statement concludes that “the Muslim Brotherhood has been engaging in political work in a way that needs to be reviewed and corrected,” this is a view shared by many.
The author would like to thank Ali el-Yessir for his kind help in translating the statement.