With its leadership elections officially due to take place in July 2014, the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood is bracing to overcome internal divisions in order to elect its new comptroller general on time. Stakes are high for the Islamist organization, which has been painfully seeking to rebuild its image and influence inside Syria after thirty years in exile.
The group’s current leader, Mohammad Riad al-Shaqfa, is a longtime Islamist militant who was chosen as a “consensus” candidate in July 2010 in the wake of a divisive internal contest that pitted members from Hama against those from Aleppo. While Shaqfa, who hails from Hama, has taken steps to build the organization and reconcile with other factions, he is not beyond critique. Many members describe him as a weak leader who does not have the necessary skills to transform the Brotherhood into a coherent political and military player in the Syrian arena.
When the Syrian revolution started, one of Shaqfa’s first moves was to decentralize decisionmaking so that members from each of Syria’s regions became responsible for organizing charity and military activities at their local levels. At first, this policy gave members a great degree of autonomy and stoked enthusiasm, but soon it also led to a duplication and fragmentation of Brotherhood efforts, unhealthy competition between regional branches, and confusion about the group’s ultimate goals across Syria. “We need a strong leader capable of harmonizing decisionmaking across the country—the Brotherhood’s current leadership must be changed,” boldly argued a member of the Revolution Shields Commission, a network of rebel groups sponsored by the Brotherhood.
Shaqfa’s lack of authority within the Brotherhood leadership became publicly apparent nearly a year ago when Mohammad Farouk Tayfour, the group’s powerful deputy head, deliberately went against a decision of the Brotherhood leadership by supporting the election of the “Saudi candidate” Ahmad al-Jarba to the National Coalition of Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, the primary opposition body in exile. Shaqfa allegedly “reprimanded” Tayfour for his behavior but nonetheless kept him as a central figure in the group’s decisionmaking process—an episode that further affected Shaqfa’s own authority. “People deal with the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood as if it were a single coherent bloc whereas it’s currently really not the case,” whispered a figure close to the leadership.
The upcoming internal contest is an opportunity to strengthen leadership cohesion as well as to enable new, younger members to have a say in the organization. Over the past four years, the Brotherhood has expanded its ranks by 15 percent, recruiting new members both inside Syria and among the Syrian refugee community abroad. Once essentially made up of upper-middle-class professionals hailing from Damascus and Aleppo, today the Brotherhood is attracting activists from lower-middle-class backgrounds from the rural regions of Idlib, Homs, and Hama. Many of these new members are young and, unlike the old guard, have not spent their lives in exile.
A SHADOWY PROCESS
In the Muslim Brotherhood system, elections for the leadership are held indirectly. A senior Brotherhood member explained that “it is only when we know who has been elected to fill the seats of the Shura Council, the Brotherhood’s main decisionmaking body, that we will know the color of the new leadership and, then, the name of the new comptroller general.”
In reality, the process is even more complicated. Exiled Muslim Brothers vote for “local committees” whose members then nominate a representative to the Shura Council. Nominations to the council are negotiated according to the candidate’s geographical base, ideological leaning, loyalty to a particular leader, and ability to provide services to members.
The Brotherhood’s youth has been vocal about the need for internal change. At a December 2012 meeting in Istanbul, the younger generation put forward several proposals for reform. One of these aimed at introducing “greater transparency” into internal elections by having Muslim Brothers directly elect their representatives to the Shura Council. The proposal’s recent rejection by the leadership has not silenced this emerging faction within the movement.
The newer generation of Muslim Brothers is eager to move into the leadership ranks. Indeed, the group has no shortage of young and gifted politicians. And some of them have even emerged as potential candidates to replace Shaqfa, who is seventy years old, when his term expires in July.
Among the leading—though, according to Brotherhood culture, undeclared—relatively young contenders are Hassan Hashemi, current head of the Brotherhood’s political bureau, Melhem al-Droubi, a spokesman for the group, and Hussam al-Ghadban, head of the Brotherhood’s youth wing. So far, however, these figures haven’t been able to unify or emerge as a coherent political bloc—something that significantly hampers their ambitions for July’s contest.
MORE OF THE SAME?
Increasingly, sources in the Brotherhood’s leadership are voicing doubt that the internal elections will be held on time. “We are facing challenges to hold the election in certain host countries,” one of the leaders told me, in an implicit reference to the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood’s rocky relations with Saudi Arabia, where hundreds of members still live.
Another senior Brotherhood member expressed concerns regarding the sensitive timing of the elections, which could exacerbate internal tensions already running high in the group. The elections are scheduled to be held shortly after a leadership contest is due to choose a new head for the National Coalition, an event that in the past has proved highly divisive within the Muslim Brotherhood. Some leaders have proposed postponing the Brotherhood’s elections until August, but no formal decision has been made.
Already, a growing number of Brotherhood figures are advocating for Shaqfa’s term to be extended for another two years in order to keep up with the speed of events in Syria, manage internal conflicts, and ultimately prepare the Brotherhood’s much-needed generational transition. “We cannot afford to lose Shaqfa right now—true, he is weak, but he has other talents and has so far contained internal divisions in a smart way,” argued an influential member of the Brotherhood.
But whether the “Syrian street” that the Brotherhood is desperately trying to court will identify with these concerns is an entirely different story.