Academic journal article Middle East Quarterly

The Muslim Brotherhood Reborn

Academic journal article Middle East Quarterly

The Muslim Brotherhood Reborn

Article excerpt

As Syrian president Bashar al-Assad struggles to contend with a massive popular uprising, the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood (SMB) is poised to dominate whatever coalition offerees manages to unseat the Baathist regime. Though in many ways the Brotherhood's official political platform is a model of Islamist moderation and tolerance, it is less a window into the group's thinking than a reflection of its political tactics. Unlike its parent organization, the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, which often kept its ideological opponents at arm's length, the SMB has repeatedly forged alliances with secular dissident groups even as it secretly tried to negotiate a deal with the Assad regime to allow its return from exile. Since the moderation of its political platform over the past two decades has clearly been intended to facilitate this triangulation, it does not tell us much about the ultimate intentions of the Syrian Brotherhood.


The SMB was established in 1945-46 by Mustafa as-Sibai as a branch of Hassan alBanna's Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. Though favoring the establishment of an Islamic state in Syria,1 it participated in parliamentary elections after the country gained independence in 1946 (winning 4 seats in 1947, 3 seats in 1949, 5 seats in 1954, and 10 seats in 1961) and evenhad ministers in two governments.2

When the secular, nationalist Baath party took power in 1963, it quickly moved to weaken the SMB and the urban, Sunni merchant class that supported the movement. The group was outlawed in 1964, and its leader Isam al-Attar was exiled. That same year, a revolt led by the SMB erupted in the city of Kama and was quelled by force.3 During the 1970s, relations between the SMB and President Hafez Assad (r. 19702000) deteriorated into large-scale violence.

Although the Brotherhood's opposition to Baathist rule was expressed ideologically in polite company, there was a deep sectarian undercurrent, as the Assad regime was dominated by Alawites, a schismatic Islamic sect viewed as heretical by religious Sunnis. Armed elements of the SMB assassinated government officials and carried out bombings of government buildings, Baath party offices, and other targets associated with the regime.4 In 1979, the SMB carried out a massacre of eighty-three unarmed Alawite cadets at an artillery school in Aleppo. In June 1980, it is said to have made an assassination attempt against the president, who allegedly retaliated by ordering hundreds of captured SMB prisoners gunned down in their cells. Although the SMB has always maintained that it had no connection to underground, armed factions responsible for violence,5 few take the claim seriously.

In 1980, the Assad regime issued Law No. 49, making membership in or association with the SMB a crime punishable by death.6 In December 1980, the SMB issued a manifesto that included a detailed program for the future Islamic state in Syria.7 It continued to work clandestinely in predominantly Sunni, urban centers outside of Damascus, particularly in the city of Kama, and it was there that the Assad regime is reported to have notoriously massacred tens of thousands of people inFebruary 1982, effectively bringing armed resistance to a halt.8

The SMB was no longer able to work openly inside Syria, and its leadership was dispersed in exile. As its influence in the country diminished, SMB leaders increasingly sought alliances with secular opponents of the Assad regime.


Shortly after the Kama massacre, the SMB began working to forge a united opposition front with secular dissidents. In March 1982, it joined with the pro-Iraqi wing of the Baath party and other militant, secular opposition groups to form the National Alliance for the Liberation of Syria.9 This alliance called for a constitutional, multiparty democracy with Shari'a (Islamic law) as the basis of legislation.10 In 1990, the SMB and a broader array of opposition groups met in Paris and formed the National Front for the Salvation of Syria with similar declared objectives. …

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