AMMAN: The leader of Syria’s outlawed Muslim Brotherhood declared his support for pro-democracy protesters challenging President Bashar Assad and said a harsh crackdown had further fueled the unrest.
In an interview with Reuters, Mohammad Riad Shaqfa said from exile in Saudi Arabia the Brotherhood was not behind the weeks of protests in Syria but supported the demands of demonstrators for greater freedom.
Shaqfa’s movement was crushed in Syria after challenging Assad’s father Hafez, who put down a Brotherhood uprising in Hama in 1982, killing thousands. Membership remains punishable by death under a 1980 law.
“We are with the demands of the people. We do not have an organization in Syria because of the 1980 law, but we do have a large popular presence,” said Shaqfa, whose movement ended an 18-month truce with Assad last year.
Vague promises of reform by the 45-year-old Assad were “painkillers designed to break the consensus of the masses” demanding the lifting of emergency law, an end to the Baath Party monopoly on power, the release of thousands of political prisoners, free elections and freedom of speech and assembly.
The Brotherhood traces its roots to an Islamist ideology born in Egypt and is close to Hamas. The Hamas link was key to the Brotherhood’s decision to suspend opposition to Baathist rule two years ago. Brotherhood officials said then the priority was resisting Israel rather than toppling Syria’s rulers.
Shaqfa said the Brotherhood had renewed its opposition role several months ago.
He denied suggestions the Brotherhood met with a senior Syrian secret police chief in Istanbul two weeks ago to strike a deal by which the movement could return to operate in Syria.
Shaqfa also accused Assad of playing on sectarian fears to remain in power and said the Brotherhood did not want Syria to become an Islamic state.
“All tyrants play the same game. They accuse their own people of serving an outside conspiracy while using violence and cunning to survive,” he said. Assad has said the protests are part of a foreign conspiracy to sow strife.
Asked about the system the Brotherhood envisions if the ruling hierarchy falls in Syria, Shaqfa said the Brotherhood is “seeking to build a civic society where citizens enjoy freedom without discrimination.”
“We believe in pluralism and the ballot box. After reaching this stage we will submit a manifesto based on civic rule with Islam as a reference,” he said. “It is then up to the people to choose.”