George Sabra, the new President of the Syrian National Council (SNC), defended his election by saying that such an election represents a blow to those who say that Syria is sectarian. This defense has come the day after President Bashar Al-Assad declared in his latest interview that Syria under his leadership represented the last stronghold of secularism and coexistence in the region. Both messages are essentially directed at the Western countries that stand alongside the Syrian Revolution and call for the overthrow of the regime.
Thus, while the Syrian President is frightening his adversaries from the consequences of his regime’s fall for their interests in the region, and threatening them with the danger that will afflict relations between sects and confessions if Islamist movements were to triumph, the Syrian opposition, as represented by its main formal body, the SNC, has found that it was also in its interest to say to Westerners: there we are, having elected a Christian President to lead the opposition in a country with a Muslim majority – this in a clear response to the accusations leveled by those Western countries, and especially President Obama’s Administration, at this opposition of having come under the control of Salafi Islamist movements.
And just as many shed doubt on the claims made by the Syrian regime of being a regime of coexistence and secularism, while it is well known to have a clear confessional identity, and to be driven solely by its political and security interests to protect other communities, inasmuch as those interests require it to do so, such doubt has also accompanied the process of electing George Sabra to head the SNC, in which more than half the members of the new electoral body – i.e. the SNC secretariat – today are affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood. This means in the view of those who shed such doubt that the Brotherhood has sought by electing Sabra, despite his failure to win a seat in the secretariat, to show that it was not sectarian when it came to its choices for leadership positions, in hopes that this would convince Western countries and that they would grant the Islamist movement their trust in spite of past and current reservations – reservations which the Muslim Brotherhood itself has been contributing to feeding through its behavior in the other countries of the Arab Spring.
This means that George Sabra’s task will be much more complicated than what was faced by his predecessors, Burhan Ghalioun and Abdulbaset Sieda. Indeed, he will have to rein in the Salafi movements which have come to pose a threat to revolutionary action, as well as to the foreign support and some of the regional support it receives. Furthermore, he will have to regain the trust of the coordination committees inside Syria and of Free Syrian Army (FSA) leaders, most of whom have reservations regarding the role played by the Muslim Brotherhood, a role which they consider to now exceed those of other representative bodies or to dominate them. It is also well known that a number of officers who have defected and have assumed leadership of FSA battalions do not acknowledge that the Muslim Brotherhood has had a major role to play in the Syrian revolutionary movement. In light of all of this, it would only be evident to say that, if it had been difficult for Ghalioun and Sieda to stand in the face of this expansion of the Brotherhood, then Sabra will be even more powerless to do so, especially as his Vice President in the SNC is Farouk Tayfour, Deputy Comptroller General of the Muslim Brotherhood in Syria.
Added to this is the fact that laying the responsibility for the growth of extremism within the ranks of the Syrian Revolution on the West, under the pretext that it failed to support the opposition, is not an argument that is easy to defend. Indeed, if this is the reason for the growth of extremism in Syria, what then is driving it to grow in both Tunisia and Egypt, where takfir (declaring others to be apostates of Islam) and the rejection of others are gaining ground in every direction? Did not the West support the revolutions in both these countries, despite having previously been allied with the two regimes which the Arab Spring emerged to topple? Had we not been promised that such a “Spring” would blossom into freedom, democracy and equality between citizens in Arab societies?
It would be mistaken to exaggerate in gauging the importance of George Sabra winning his new seat, and granting such a victory the “secularist” aspect it has been given. Indeed, we are not here before a replication of the historical experience that was the relationship between Faris Al-Khoury and Shukri Al-Quwatli in Syria. The region has changed and so has Syria. And an experience such as this has unfortunately become part of the nostalgia of history, unconnected to today’s sectarian and confessional reality, and the state of social deterioration experienced by the Arab region.
In any case, we would hope for this prediction to prove mistaken, and for the Syrian National Council to surprise us with a different reality!
(The writer is a columnist for al-Hayat, where this article was first published Nov. 12, 2012)