Muslim Brotherhood in Syria

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This article refers to the Syrian organisation called the Muslim Brotherhood

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The Muslim Brotherhood of Syria has been described as “a branch” of the Sunni Islamist Muslim Brotherhood[1], and as “very loosely affiliated” to the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood.[2] It has also been called the “dominant group”[2] or “dominant force”[1] in the opposition during the Syrian uprising as of spring 2012.[2] The group’s stated political positions are moderate and in its recent April 2012 manifesto it “pledges to respect individual rights”, promote pluralism and democracy, and does not even “mention the word Islam”.[1][3]

Founded sometime before or at the end of World War II, the group was banned by the government starting after a 1963 coup by the secularist, pan-Arabist Baath Party.[4] The Brotherhood played a major role in the mainly Sunni-based resistance movement that opposed the Baath Party and membership in the Brotherhood in Syria became a capital offence in the 1980.[5]

Following the Hama uprising of 1982, when thousands were killed by the military[6] the group was “almost annihilated” as an active political force inside Syria until the 2011 uprising gave it new life.[2]

 HistoryThe Muslim Brotherhood in Syria was founded in the late 1930s or mid 1940s. In the first years of independence it was part of the legal opposition, and in the 1961 parliamentary elections it won ten seats. After the 1963 coup brought the secularist, pan-Arabist Baath Party to power, it was banned.[7] The Brotherhood played a major role in the mainly Sunni-based resistance movement that opposed the Baath Party, (since 1971 dominated by the Alawite Assad family, adding a religious element to its conflict with the Brotherhood). This conflict developed into an armed struggle in the late 1970s that climaxed in the Hama uprising of 1982, when thousands were killed by the military.[8]

Membership of the Syrian Brotherhood became a capital offence in Syria in the 1980 (under Emergency Law 49)[9] and the Brotherhood was crushed, though it retained a network of support in the country of unknown strength, and had external headquarters in London and Cyprus. In recent years it has renounced violence and adopted a reformist platform, calling for the establishment of a pluralistic, democratic political system. For many years the leader of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood was Ali Sadreddine Bayanouni, who lives as a political refugee in London.

OriginsTowards the end of the 1930s, the ideas of Hassan al-Banna reached Syria as young Syrians, who had graduated from university in Cairo and participated in the Muslim Brotherhood there, returned home and founded associations called “Muhammad’s Youth” (Shabab Muhammad), which were to become the Muslim Brotherhood in Syria. The Muslim Brotherhood in Syria was founded in the 1930s (according to or in 1945, a year before independence from France, (according to journalist Robin Wright and the Brotherhood itself). The Brotherhood states its founder was Dr. Mustafa al-Siba’i.[3] By 1954, the Syrian association led by Mustafa al-Siba’i offered assistance to its Egyptian sister organisation, which Gamal ‘Abd al-Nasser was then subjecting to severe repression.[10]

However, it was not until the 1960s that the Syrian Brotherhood came to play a major role in politics, as part of a broad-based resistance movement, which developed into armed struggle, against an authoritarian system. After the Ba’thist military coup of 8 March 1963, the new administration drastically restricted political freedoms, and concentrated power in the hands of the military and awarded prominent positions to the country’s Alawite minority. Sunni Syrian Islamists – from the majority faith – did not have representation in the government. From the start, Islamic political groups, of which the Brotherhood was the most prominent, represented the strongest opposition to the government. The outlawing of Brotherhood in 1964 resulted in its radicalisation. In 1964 and 1965, strikes and mass demonstrations spread throughout Syria’s major cities, especially in Hama, and were crushed by the military. In 1971, General Hafez al-Assad, an Alawite, seized power; in 1973 violent demonstrations broke out again in response to a proposed constitution that did not require the president to be a Muslim. Syria’s intervention in the Lebanese civil war in 1976 on the side of the Maronites sparked renewed agitation in Syria, and assassinations began to target members of the Syrian government and prominent Alawites; the Muslim Brotherhood later claimed responsibility for most of these.[11][12]

1976-82 Islamic insurgencyMain article: Islamic uprising in Syria
Further information: Terrorism in Syria#1976-82 Islamic insurgency
On 16 June 1979, the Muslim Brotherhood carried out an attack on cadets at the Aleppo Artillery School, officially killing 83. Allegedly, the government of Iraq provided logistical and military support to the Brotherhood.[citation needed] Around this time, professor Yusef al-Yusef was assassinated in Aleppo, an event often cited by secular activist Wafa Sultan as the reason she came to oppose Islam in general. The Syrian government responded by sentencing to death about 15 prisoners, already accused of being Iraqi agents, for belonging to the Islamic resistance movement. Terrorist attacks then became a daily occurrence, particularly in Aleppo and other northern cities. The government tended to ascribe these attacks to the Brotherhood, but as the armed resistance gained widespread popular support and more loosely defined armed groups appeared, especially in poor neighborhoods, it became difficult to determine the extent of the Brotherhood’s involvement.[13]

In November 1979, a Brotherhood leaflet stated:

We reject all forms of despotism, out of respect for the very principles of Islam, and we don’t demand the fall of Pharaoh so that another one can take his place. Religion is not imposed by force….[14]

In the days leading to 8 March 1980 (the seventeenth anniversary of the Ba’thist coup), nearly all Syrian cities were paralysed by strikes and protests, which developed into pitched battles with security forces. Many organisations, both religious and secular, were involved, including the Muslim Brotherhood. The regime responded with overwhelming military force, sending in tens of thousands of troops, supported by tanks and helicopters. In and around Aleppo, hundreds of demonstrators were killed, and eight thousand were arrested. By April, the uprising had been crushed.[15]

A newspaper article by the president’s brother, Rifaat al-Assad, stated that the government was prepared to “sacrifice a million martyrs” (over a tenth of Syria’s population at that time) in order to stamp out “the nation’s enemies”. On 7 July 1980, the government passed a law making membership in the Brotherhood punishable by death. Typically, however, the administration practiced indiscriminate, collective punishment: in August, the army executed 80 residents of a block of flats in response to an attack on soldiers stationed in Aleppo. In April 1981, the army executed about 400 of Hama’s inhabitants, chosen among male loyalists over the age of 14. This was as a retribution after a failed terrorist attack on an Alawite village near Hama.[16]

During a 50-day moratorium on the application of the 7 July law, over a thousand Muslim Brothers turned themselves in, hoping to escape the death penalty; information published about them in the official press may give some insight into the composition of the Brotherhood’s membership at that time. Most of those who gave themselves up were students under twenty-five years of age, from Damascus and other large cities; others were schoolteachers, professors or engineers.[17]

In August, September and November 1981, the Brotherhood carried out three car-bomb attacks against government and military targets in Damascus, killing hundreds of people, according to the official press. On 2 February 1982, the Brotherhood led a major insurrection in Hama, rapidly taking control of the city; the military responded by bombing Hama (whose population was about 250,000) throughout the rest of the month, killing between 10,000 and 30,000 people. The tragedy of Hama marked the defeat of the Brotherhood, and the militant Islamic movement in general, as a political force in Syria.[18][19]

Post-Hama eraHaving suppressed all opposition, Hafez al-Assad released some imprisoned members of the Brotherhood in the mid-1990s. After his death in 2000, Assad was succeeded by his son, Bashar al-Assad, who initially signalled greater openness to political debate. In May 2001, encouraged by a new political climate, the Muslim Brotherhood published a statement in London rejecting political violence, and calling for a modern, democratic state. Many political prisoners, including Muslim Brothers, were pardoned and released. However, this reform was short-lived; in the same year, the few political freedoms that had been granted were abruptly revoked.[20]

Although its leadership is in exile, the Brotherhood continues to enjoy considerable sympathy among Syrians. Riyad al-Turk, a secular opposition leader, considers it “the most credible” Syrian opposition group. The Brotherhood has continued to advocate a democratic political system; it has abandoned its calls for violent resistance and for the application of shari’a law, as well as for Sunni uprisings against Alawites. Al-Turk and others in the secular opposition are inclined to take this evolution seriously, as a sign of the Brotherhood’s greater political maturity, and believe that the Brotherhood would now be willing to participate in a democratic system of government.[21]

In a January 2006 interview, the Brotherhood’s leader, Ali Sadreddine Bayanouni, “said the Muslim Brotherhood wants a peaceful change of government in Damascus and the establishment of a ‘civil, democratic state’, not an Islamic republic.”[22] According to Bayanouni, the Syrian government admits having detained 30,000 people, giving a fair representation of the Brotherhood’s strength.[23]

According to leaked American cables, Syrian President Bashar al Assad allegedly called Hamas an “uninvited guest” and said “If you want me to be effective and active, I have to have a relationship with all parties. Hamas is Muslim Brotherhood, but we have to deal with the reality of their presence.”, comparing Hamas to the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood which was crushed by his father Hafez al Assad. He then allegedly claimed Hamas would disappear if peace was brought to the Middle East.[24][25]

2011 Syrian UprisingThe regime of Bashir al Assad and others have accused the Muslim Brotherhood of being key players in the 2011 uprising that is currently going on in Syria[26][27][28]. Other sources have described the group as having “risen from the ashes”[1], “resurrected itself”[2] to be a dominant force in the uprising.

The movement holds the largest “number of seats in the Syrian National Council, the main opposition umbrella and “control[s]” the relief committee, which distributes aid and money to Syrians participating in the revolt. The Brotherhood has distributing weapons inside the country, using donations from individual members and from Persian Gulf states including Qatar and Saudi Arabia.[2]

At the same time Brotherhood leaders have been reaching out to reassure leaders in neighboring Jordan, Iraq and Lebanon — as well as the west — that they “have no intention of dominating a future Syrian political system”[2] and have “played down” their “growing influence” in the Syrian opposition.[1] The MB has assured outsiders that it is “going to great lengths to ensure” that its donated weapons “don’t fall into the hands of extremists”.[2]

PersonalitiesMohammed Farouk Tayfour – deputy leader, vice president of the Syrian National Council[2]
Molham al-Drobi – a member of the Brotherhood’s leadership and sits on the Syrian National Council’s foreign affairs committee.[2]
Ali Sadreddine al-Bayanouni – former Brotherhood leader[1]

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