Past Event

The Syrian Uprising: The Role of the Opposition and What the International Community Can Do

On October 2, 2011, the Brookings Doha Center hosted a policy discussion with Ali Sadr al-Din al-Bayanouni, former General Supervisor of the Muslim Brotherhood in Syria. His address focused on the Syrian opposition’s unity and platform against the Asad regime, the ideas propagated by the Muslim Brotherhood, and the potential role for the international community in Syria. Bayanouni’s remarks were followed by a lively question and answer session moderated by Salman Shaikh, director of the Brookings Doha Center. The discussion was attended by members of Qatar’s academic, business, diplomatic and media communities.

Ali Sadr al-Din al-Bayanouni began his remarks by speaking about the past struggle of the Muslim Brotherhood and other opposition groups in Syria under the Asad regime. He pointed out that most politically active Syrians had one of two choices – joining the regime or moving in an Islamic direction. Bayanouni explained that the challenge faced by the secular opposition (in Syria and elsewhere) was that instead of adopting secularism as a project for freedom against oppression, they focused too much attention on their opposition to Islam in politics. Such secular opposition groups, then, became associated with the ruling party, thereby losing grassroots support. As a result, Bayanouni argued, many of these groups have not had a hand in starting or aiding this year’s protests.

The Syrian regime, for five decades, Bayanouni said, presented itself as the protector of minorities. In reality, theregime encouraged sectarian divisions. Bayanouni made clear, however, that the abuses of Asad’s sectarian regime do not implicate all members of the Alawi sect. Learning from past experience, Bayanouni said, national unity should remain the focus of the revolution. In fact, the project of the Syrian opposition is based on shared demands: ending the oppression of the old regime and building a modern, civil state that believes in partnership, using elections as the means of decision-making.

A “civil” state, Bayanouni explained, would be ruled by a civil constitution based on a social contract bringing all parties together. Bayanouni stressed the need for the state to be inclusive: “a free society builds itself, but a closed society isolates itself.” Furthermore, citizenship would be the basis of the individual’s relationship with the government, and laws would be universally applied, regardless of gender or religion. Bayanouni also stressed that the civil state and its policies must express the will of the political majority, with elections determining the political leadership. Referring to the Brotherhood’s prospects for success with such a system, Bayanouni explained, “even if we fail in achieving our program, we will accept failure and adapt accordingly.”

The Syrian regime, Bayanouni conceded, played a functional role in the Middle East region, and many are betting on its continuity, yet it has committed horrific crimes embarrassing both itself and its supporters. Bayanouni decried the fact that after seven months of protests, during which more than 5,000 have been killed and tens of thousands wounded, detained, and displaced, the Syrian regime still enjoys a degree of international protection. A regime like Asad’s “should not find a seat in the international club,” Bayanouni asserted. He went on to say that the Syrian people, through their peaceful revolution, are determined to regain their dignity and liberty, no matter how difficult the sacrifices they make. They should not be left alone facing repression which constitutes a violation of all international principles, Bayanouni stated.

Following Bayanouni’s remarks, the floor was opened for questions. Moderator Salman Shaikh asked about what role Turkey, Iran, and the United States should play during the ongoing crisis. Bayanouni responded that the Turkish government at first disappointed the opposition by believing for far too long that the Asad regime could enact meaningful reforms. In terms of the Iranian role, Bayanouni pointed out the regime’s hypocrisy in its praise for revolutions in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya yet its enduring support of the Asad regime in Syria. Meanwhile, Bayanouni criticized the United STates for being the first country to accept Bashar al-Asad’s inheritance of power from his father Hafez. Even when the Americans have put pressure on the regime, as in 2005, it has not been to change the regime but to promote reform. Bayanouni stated, however, that the international community is revising its calculations and suggested the Obama Administration should do the same, as no country has any interest in linking itself with the Asad regime. In response to another question from Shaikh, Bayanouni criticized the Arab states for their lack of support and called on Arabs to respond positively to Syrian calls for assistance.

One audience member pointed out that the Muslim Brotherhood had changed its position after originally accepting Bashar’s succession. Bayanouni admitted that the Brotherhood did not reject outright Bashar’s ascendance to power, stating that the group held out hope that he would enact promised reforms. Bayanouni emphasized that the Brotherhood realizes its mistakes and admits to them.

Another question concerned whether Bayanouni anticipated or hoped that the Muslim Brotherhood would be in power alone in the future. Bayanouni responded that “we cannot bear responsibility for the coming stage.” He pointed out that, because the Asad regime had destroyed the country, a coalition government including many different parties would be needed – possibly for several years. Bayanouni stressed that all parties should cooperate in dealing with the country’s various crises.

Finally, audience member Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi made a comment about the Arab Spring, calling it “the will of God.” He also stressed that “these are real revolutions,” begun by the people of the region themselves rather than by any outside force. For that reason, Qaradawi said that he had no doubt they would ultimately be successful. Qaradawi went on to say that it is against the laws of God for any family to rule over one nation in the manner of the Asad family, treating it as their own estate. Qaradawi stressed the need to stand by the protesters, not just with the Muslim Brotherhood. He explained: “If the Muslim Brotherhood stands with the people, we are with them. If they stand against the people, we will be against them.”

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