BEIRUT: The Syrian Muslim Brotherhood is struggling to rebrand itself through the launch of a new political party, with divisions emerging over how to establish legitimacy on the ground while distancing itself from the party’s troubled past.
The decision to launch Waad, or “Promise,” was delayed yet again last week after a series of meetings failed to overcome what some members described as a lack of coordination and hesitation on the part of Turkey’s ruling AKP, a main sponsor of the new party.
Founding members now say Waad, first founded in June, will most likely be launched in January, ahead of scheduled peace talks in Geneva between Bashar Assad and his backers, and those opposed to his rule.
The Brotherhood is seeking to position the party as a credible, nationalist alternative in any multiparty transition process that may emerge from Geneva II. But the nascent party is already struggling with an identity crisis as it tries to present the group as genuinely independent from its parent organization, the Muslim Brotherhood.
It must overcome deep mistrust in Syrian society after 30 years in exile, following a bloody crackdown against a Brotherhood-led insurrection under Hafez Assad in the 1980s.
Muslim Brotherhood members acknowledge that they must counter the recent ill-fated experiments with political Islam in other “Arab Spring” countries, notably in Egypt, where the Egyptian Brotherhood’s political arm, the Freedom and Justice Party, was swept from power in a military coup after winning post-revolutionary elections, as well as in Tunisia, where the moderate Islamist ruling Ennahda Party is facing a backlash as a result of concerns over its hidden Islamic agenda.
In Syria, persistent accusations dogged the former umbrella opposition body, the Syrian National Council, that it was acting as a mere front for the Muslim Brotherhood and was implementing a Qatari agenda. This council eventually lost its international backing and it ended up subsumed in the internationally recognized Syrian National Coalition.
In this context, the new party is at pains to present itself as a nationalist party, with a centrist Islamist frame of reference, in an attempt to win the confidence of its potential constituents and international backers.
Mohammad Zuhair Khatib, a founding member of the party and member of the Muslim Brotherhood politburo, insists there is agreement among Brotherhood members that the new party must be strictly independent.
“We know there is a mosaic in Syria. We need to be more moderate with more nationalistic ideas rather than Islamic [ones],” Khatib said.
“That’s why we say this is a national party, completely independent with a moderate Islamic [frame of] reference.”
The party’s approved founding constitution, seen by The Daily Star, stipulates that Muslim Brotherhood members make up no more than one-third of its membership, alongside other independents and nationalist figures. Its deputy leader, Nabil Kassis, is a Christian, reinforcing its diversity, and senior leaders in the Brotherhood cannot hold senior leadership positions in Waad.
Mohammad Hikmat Walid, a physician from Latakia, has been confirmed as party leader.
Khatib said the party would be financed through Waad membership fees, adding that it would be “100 percent transparent about our financing.”
But, he admitted, winning the trust of Syrians presented a “challenge.”
“It is hard and it will need some time,” he said. “We need to work now to establish our independence. There is a difference between what you say and what you do. We will need to show people we are transparent.”
“We will be dealing with politics and the Muslim Brotherhood will be responsible” for religious propagation efforts, he continued. “The clerical arm needs to step back from politics and be involved in building the nation, the family, the community.”
Khatib predicted that a transitional period would see the introduction of a pluralistic, multiparty system.
“Then we will have a democratic Syria with a law for parties, and we will be the main Islamic party,” but, he said, correcting himself, “not Islamic, a national party.”
Nonetheless, analysts and some Muslim Brotherhood members themselves have expressed skepticism about how Waad can win support on the ground in Syria in the current environment of bloody strife. Moreover, the party agenda appears to be at odds with the Brotherhood as it pursues its own agenda of extending influence on the ground, especially in north of the country that have fallen out of the regime’s control.
The Brotherhood has opened its own political office in Aleppo and has focused efforts on delivering aid through its charity wing. It also funds and backs certain military brigades involved in the armed insurrection. It has launched a substantial public relations campaign, including the launch of its own radio station and newspaper promoting its humanitarian credentials.
Mulhem Droubi, an executive member of the Muslim Brotherhood, policy adviser and spokesman, said the relationship between the party and the Muslim Brotherhood had been the topic of “a lot of internal debate.”
“The final decision was that the party has to be independent,” he said, casting Waad as merely a political party with Muslim Brotherhood members.
He said there was no decision yet about whether to integrate the Muslim Brotherhood’s political offices, and, highlighting the potential for muddied relations, said the Waad party could not expect to utilize Muslim Brotherhood networks established through aid and military channels.
“For the time being, since the Waad Party has not been launched, and we are yet to see the success of the political program, it will be business as usual for the Muslim Brotherhood,” he said.
“The biggest challenge for Waad is to implement its political program to meet the expectations of the Syrian people,” he said. “For the Waad Party to gain credibility they have to start immediately within the liberated areas. They need to offer needed services to the Syrian people. If they wait for a political transition and [for] everything to be settled, they will lose credibility.”
“If [Waad comes] to us saying that they need to use our networks, the answer will be: You are by yourself,” he said, adding, “Political parties are not what [the Syrian people] are looking for now.”
Raphael Lefevre, a visiting fellow at Carnegie Middle East Center and an expert on the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, said the group’s members have long struggled to promote themselves as centrists. “People still don’t believe them,” he said.
Nonetheless, he said, Waad could be a way “to show they mean it.”
“In all, I really do think it is a commendable [project]; it is seeking to bridge the gaps in Syrian society when they are only widening. They are positioning themselves as the centerpiece of moderate Islam, but I am not sure how successful they will be. In parts of Syria, their reputation is disastrous,” he commented.
“Besides, it’s not yet time for politics in Syria. It will be perceived as opportunistic,” he added.