However, the Islamists now face a countrywide backlash that could force them to curb their ambitions.
The Brotherhood’s dominance of the National Coalition, and its main component and predecessor the Syrian National Council (SNC), has triggered a sharp reaction from other opposition groups and intellectuals.
More than 40 groups and 500 prominent individuals have signed onto a plan to reform the National Coalition, which is considered the legitimate representative of the Syrian people by most Arab and Western countries. The reformers’ top priority is to broaden participation in the Coalition, a demand that would inevitably weaken the Brotherhood’s grip on opposition politics.
“We demand the expansion of the National Coalition. We don’t want to have one political party, one color, one trend, to control it, specifically the Muslim Brotherhood,” said Jalal Altawil, a Syrian actor and activist. The dispute among Syria’s fractured opposition became heated after the appointment of Ghassan Hito, an unknown candidate, as the transitional prime minister. Many members of the Coalition accused the Brotherhood and its allies of masterminding the appointment, and over 10 froze their membership in protest of the election.
Mohammad Riad al-Shaqfa, the leader of Syria’s Muslim Brotherhood, recently denied that the group is monopolizing power and said the party’s goal is to unite – not tear apart – the Syrian opposition.
The problem is that many Syrians don’t perceive the Brotherhood as a unifying entity, and the party is accused of becoming increasingly divisive.
“Muslim Brothers had a controlling effect since the beginning of the SNC establishment. They managed to include many of their members and their allies,” said Amar Alazm, an associate professor of Middle East History at Shawnee State University in Ohio.
The story of the Muslim Brotherhood’s revival began with the formation of the SNC in October 2011, with the help of the party’s allies in Ankara and Doha. Members of the Brotherhood dominated many committees and were the only organized faction that could control the SNC. Despite its expansion in September, the SNC was seen as unrepresentative and was superseded by the National Coalition on November 12.
(Ali Sadr al-Din Bayanouni, the Brotherhood’s former comptroller, explains how the party elected a secular leader to the SNC who would be acceptable to the West and many Syrians, and who would refute claims by the regime that its opponents were all Islamists.)
Though November’s events appeared to be a coup for independent and secular politics – demonstrated in a leadership that brought the moderate imam Moaz al-Khatib to the Coalition presidency and Suheir Atassi, SNC President George Sabra and Riad Seif to vice presidential roles – it soon became clear that two main blocs effectively controlled decisions in the Coalition. Those two blocs were the Muslim Brotherhood and a powerful new player named Mustafa al-Sabbagh, a businessman with ties to Qatar. Al-Sabbagh’s nascent power stems from the loyalty of the provincial representatives, giving him a significant voting bloc that is decisive when combined with that of the Brotherhood.
Zuhair Salim, the Muslim Brotherhood’s spokesman, rejected that the party controls the Coalition. “We have only six members, or less than 10 percent,” he said. “How can the Brotherhood control the National Coalition?”
Based on clear party affiliation, Salim is correct. But in Syria, Brotherhood members and allies have traditionally publically covered their affiliation with the Brotherhood, for fear of arrest and execution by the Assad regime (which outlawed the party in the infamous Law 49 of 1980, forcing it underground).
Still, today’s National Coalition includes prominent and public Muslim Brotherhood members occupying nonpartisan seats. Ali Sadr al-Din Bayanouni, the former comptroller general of the Brotherhood, is part of the powerful “national figure” bloc. Dr. Khaled Khoja represents the Turkmen, a small ethnic minority in Syria. Khoja was endorsed by al-Shaqfa, the Brotherhood’s leader, to be the National Coalition ambassador to Turkey.
The second large bloc in the Coalition are the local committee representatives, who are considered by many Coalition members to be loyal to Secretary General Mustafa al-Sabbagh, a moderate Muslim from Latakia who represents the Syrian Business Forum and is known to have close ties to Qatar.
Muslim Brotherhood members, through the SNC vehicle, teamed up with Sabbagh’s bloc to push through the election of Syrian-American prime minister Ghassan Hitto, creating a rift in the Coalition. Among those who attacked the Brotherhood are secular dissidents such as Michael Kilo, who accused the Muslim Brothers and Qatar of dominating the Coalition.
“Muslim Brotherhood benefit from the deficit and the weakness of secular political forces,” said Alazm. “They are able to weave alliances as we witnessed in the Hitto appointment.”
The Coalition was formed to boost seculars but has failed to convince many of them to join. The Brotherhood’s voice is amplified by a quirk: the Coalition consists of 72 seats, but only 62 members are active because some representatives, many who speak for secular groups, refused to join (including the Kurdish National Council, which has three seats).
Ahmad Kamel, a member of the Coalition’s press office, said the seats will remain open and political forces are welcome to join at any time. “The Kurdish National Council has the seat of vice president in case they decided to join. Unfortunately, they haven’t decided to join yet.”
Kurds have stipulated that the Coalition has to acknowledge some “nationalistic rights” for the ethnic group, and allow for the Democratic Union Party, which linked to the Turkish Kurdistan Workers’ Party, to participate before the Kurdish National Council could join.
Dr. Najib Ghadbian, a member in both the National Coalition and the Syrian National Council, also said the Muslim Brotherhood can’t control the Coalition due to its small number of seats. “Many political forces refused to join the National Coalition. I say to them, before you guys complain, join us and participate before you say that we are not represented,” he said.