Syria Muslim Brotherhood leader scents power

BRUSSELS — After a quarter of a century in exile, the leader of Syria’s outlawed Muslim Brotherhood scents power after forming a coalition with secular, nationalist, liberal, communist and Kurdish opposition parties.

In an interview with Reuters during talks in Brussels to form a united opposition front, London-based Ali Bayanouni said only international acquiescence was keeping President Bashar Assad in power, and urged the West to boycott his government.

“What we want to see from the United States and European countries is to lift this umbrella of international protection of this regime,” said Bayanouni, who left Syria before Assad’s father crushed an Islamist uprising in the town of Hama in 1982 killing at least 10,000 people and perhaps twice that number.

He said the regime would collapse without international protection as it had no public support.

Some 16 opposition groups announced the formation of a united front on Friday to create a transitional government aiming to overthrow Assad and install democracy.

It is hard to gauge how much backing the oldest Islamist political movement has in tightly controlled Syria, where membership of the Brotherhood has been punishable by death since 1980, a year after Bayanouni fled abroad.

“There are no precise measures that we can use to know at the moment how much support we have in Syria because of the lack of the means to measure public opinion,” Bayanouni said between bouts of negotiation with former vice president Abdel-Halim Khaddam, the other main figurehead of the new coalition.

“But we believe the wide Islamic current in the society is big, and we are part of this Islamic current.”

Islamic tide

Surveying the Middle East, from Egypt and the Palestinian territories to Turkey and Iraq, the bearded, bespectacled politician, in a suit and tie, feels history is moving his way.

“We believe that in the current situation in the Arab world, the Islamic tide is a wide phenomenon, and if there are free elections, then this current will take its exact place and fill its exact size in the political atmosphere,” he said.

“With the failure of the experiences of other movements, secularists and nationalists, people are looking for other solutions, and that is why they are coming to the Islamists.” But Bayanouni insisted his movement was moderate and did not seek to impose Sharia in Syria, nor had the Muslim Brotherhood sacrificed its principles to its new allies.

“Our political project talks about building a civil state in Syria, not a theocratic state,” he said.

“We call for a civil state with Islamic cultural background.

The principles of liberty, pluralism, a multi-party system, free elections, equality and equal opportunities are among the principal values of Islam. So we didn’t make any concessions.” Bayanouni voiced a close affinity for the Palestinian militant movement Hamas, saying that it was forced into armed resistance because it was born under Israeli occupation, whereas he said a Syrian uprising would use peaceful protest.

Asked whether young Arabs were not more attracted to militants like Osmama Ben Laden than to moderate Islamists, he said: “If we put more obstacles and try to control moderate Islam and not allow it to take part in political life, we are indirectly fuelling extremism.”

Khaddam, who broke with Assad last July after 35 years in government, has promised his supporters to return to Damascus before the end of the summer in a “regime change.” But Bayanouni, made more patient by decades of underground struggle and exile, is less willing to predict an early victory.

“There is no specific timescale, but we believe that this regime has now completed all the reasons to collapse,” he said.

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