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Syria’s unrest led by Islamists?

Contrary to the Syrian government’s claim, unrest in the country was not instigated or led by Islamists, according to analysts interviewed by AFP.

“They are certainly present but they are not directing it. This popular uprising does not depend on the old political parties,” Rime Allaf, a researcher on Syria at the London-based think tank Chatham House, told AFP.

Long suppressed and banned, the fervently Sunni Muslim Brotherhood views the secular regime led by the minority Alawite Shiite sect as “apostate.”

The Brotherhood in Syria was formed in 1945, and was banned since the socialist Baath party took power in 1963.

“The Muslim Brotherhood has lost much of its influence since (the 1982 massacre in) Hama, and especially after they allied themselves with former vice president Abdel Halim Khaddam,” Ms. Allaf added.

Mr. Khaddam was second in command during much of the rule of Hafez al-Assad—father of the current President Bashar al-Assad—before breaking with the regime in 2006.

In February 2006, the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood leader Ali Sadreddine Bayanouni formed an opposition front with Mr. Khaddam.

The Brotherhood carried out attacks against the regime from 1976 to 1982, before being crushed in its stronghold of Hama in the 1982 massacre of 20,000. Membership in the Brotherhood is still punishable by death.

Meanwhile, according to Faysal Itani of London-based risk assessment group Exclusive Analysis, the brotherhood is still a political force enjoying a popular base and concentrating in major Sunni urban areas such as Hama, Aleppo and Homs.

“However, it is neither well organized nor does it have any formal structures,” Mr. Itani, who is deputy head of Middle East and North Africa forecasting, said. “As it stands, the most significant role it can play in the uprising is by declaring support for protests and having its sympathizers participate in them.”

The Brotherhood’s sustaining a protracted insurgency similar to that in late 1970s and early 1980s is “low, if not non-existent,” he said, but warned that the group could gain muscle if it were provided weapons and training by Sunnis in neighboring Iraq, or disaffected soldiers and officers from the largely Sunni military in Syria.

Thomas Pierret, an associate at Berlin’s Zentrum Moderner Orient research institute said the religious Salafist movement, born in the early 20th century in Syria, has widespread influence in society, but does not have institutions because of official repression.

The last major Salafist figure was Abdel Kader al-Arnaout, who died in 2004.

The Muslim Brotherhood formed in 1928 in Egypt is the world’s oldest and largest Islamist political group, and it is also the largest political opposition organization in many Arab States.

Observers have dubbed the Egyptian revolution as people-led and have downplayed a major role for any unilateral force amassing the people to revolt, challenging the claim by former and current Arab leaders that if democracy to reign in the region, Islamists will rule.

In Egypt however, there is increasing fear that Islamists are gaining clout. In Qena, southern Egypt, demonstrators are continuing their protests against a new governor who is a Coptic Christian.

Bassma Kodmani, a Syrian-born researcher at the Arab Reform Initiative, based in Paris and Beirut, disagrees about the role of the Brotherhood in the Syrian protest movement.

“In a society repressed by the security services there have to be determined elements—that is to say politicized—to stir it all, like the Muslim Brotherhood, communists and others,” Ms. Bassma said.

“These are the backbone” of the protests,” she added.

(Dina Al-Shibeeb of Al Arabiya can be reached at: dina.ibrahim@mbc.net)