“No one in Syria expected the anti-regime uprising to last this long or be this deadly, but after around 70,000 dead, 1 million refugees, and two years of unrest, there is still no end in sight. While President Bashar al-Assad's brutal response is mostly to blame, the opposition's chronic failure to form a viable front against the regime has also allowed the conflict to drag on. And there's one anti-Assad group that is largely responsible for this dismal state of affairs: Syria's Muslim Brotherhood.”
In an article published yesterday in FP, Hassan Hassan argued that the Muslim Brotherhood is largely to blame for the failure of the Syrian opposition to overcome its divisions and play a more decisive role in the Syrian uprising. In How the Muslim Brotherhood Hijacked Syria's Revolution, Hassan described how the Brotherhood exploited its regional connections and disproportionally large representation within the myriad bodies of the ‘external’ opposition to increase its own influence at the expense of the opposition’s effectiveness and unity.
Hassan’s work has been consistently thorough and well-researched on Syria, and this article is equally rigorous. But while the facts of the Brotherhood’s behind-the-scenes scheming cannot be contested, blaming the Islamist organisation solely for the failure of the opposition ignores the deeper structural reasons for this chronic failure. For that, we have to look at the artificial environment in which the opposition is operating.
There’s a clue in a common phrase used derisively by Syrians, ‘the opposition of the hotels’ in reference to the disconnected nature of the opposition’s political work, most of which happens in international capitals. As I concluded in a piece last month in Syria Deeply:
“The ‘political opposition’ has repeatedly failed the Syrian uprising and did not rise to the level of representing the aspirations and sacrifices of the Syrian people. This is not about personalities or frictions as many argue, it is because this process of political formation is happening in a sterile external environment that is disconnected from the realities of Syria.”
The Muslim Brotherhood cannot be blamed for being more effective at political lobbying within a system that the entire opposition subscribed to. There’s been no self-critique whatsoever by the opposition for its complicity in creating this environment in the first place, and the terrible choices that followed from it such as gambling on an external intervention that never happened. ‘Jasmine Roman’ did a great job of articulating the discontent with these choices in this open letter to Syria’s opposition in The National.
The main problem is and will continue to be the disconnectedness between the opposition’s external work and the realities on the ground. But Hassan takes the Brotherhood to task precisely for that type of grassroots work: building influence within the rebel forces and the Local Coordination Committees. I personally don’t see anything sinister about that, every political organisation engaged in an armed struggle would have done that.
There’s been a sense with all the Arab uprisings and Syria most of all that the struggle must be ‘depoliticised’ in order for it to succeed. The implication is that politics would impinge on the ‘purity’ of the popular struggle. But that depoliticised rhetoric quickly exhausted itself because it’s intangible and abstract. While the opposition outside continues to talk in terms of unicorns and rainbows, the Islamist discourse is filling the vacuum of ideas on the ground.
The Muslim Brotherhood should be criticised for its clandestine machinations within opposition bodies, but there’s nothing intrinsically sinister about the organisation seeking to consolidate its political influence. It has certainly benefitted disproportionally from external support, but all of the opposition was complicit in allowing that support to play a major role in the Syrian uprising. The real problem is that while the centre of gravity of the Syrian opposition continues to be outside Syria, its political environment will remain distorted and conducive to cynical machinations.
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