At the outset of the popular uprising in Syria in March 2011, the Muslim Brotherhood refrained from participation. Its first official statement in support of the uprising was issued only at the end of April calling for President Bashar al-Assad to step down.
In October 2011, the Syrian National Council, the first Syrian opposition body in exile, was formed in Istanbul. The Brotherhood was a founding member along with other opposition figures – it was the only Islamist actor represented on the council.
With the mushrooming of Islamist armed groups on the ground, many Brotherhood critics argued that the group was no longer relevant in the Syrian uprising against Assad which has since been hijacked by various groups, most important of which are the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and Jabhat al-Nusra (al-Nusra Front).
The movement leaders argue to the contrary, insisting that they represent “the moderate face of Islam” and have called for the establishment of a modern, democratic and pluralistic civil state, as outlined in a document the movement issued in March 2012, titled: “The Covenant and Pact”, which outlined concepts for a post-Assad Syria.
Last November, the movement appointed Mohammad Hekmat Walid, a 70-year-old British-educated ophthalmologist, to be its new leader for a four-year term.
Walid, originally from Latakia, is the 12th leader of the Syrian Brotherhood. He spoke to Al Jazeera about where the Brotherhood stands today in the conflict in Syria, its relationship with ISIL, and his assessment on the anti-ISIL coalition policies.
Al Jazeera: Does the Muslim Brotherhood accept a political settlement that has a place for President Bashar al-Assad?
Mohammad Hikmat Walid: Bashar al-Assad has committed so many crimes against the Syrian people that it puts him out of any settlement in the future of Syria. Any attempt to rehabilitate him would be an insult to the Syrian revolution and it will extend the suffering of the Syrian people.
The policy of the international coalition to fight terrorism in Syria is suspicious and confusing. It is a selective policy that only sees some actions as terrorism while others are not. Terrorism in Syria is multifaceted, but Bashar al-Asaad and his regime are the biggest terrorist for their strangling of the Syrian people for many decades.
AJ: What do you make of the policies of the anti-ISIL coalition?
Walid: The policy of the international coalition to fight terrorism in Syria is suspicious and confusing. It is a selective policy that only defines some actions as terrorism while others are not.
Terrorism in Syria is multifaceted, but Bashar al-Assad and his regime are the biggest terrorists for their strangling of the Syrian people for many decades.
We believe that the decision of the international community to turn a blind eye to Assad’s terrorism will extend the life of his regime even longer and it sends the wrong message to the Syrian people.
AJ: How is the Muslim Brotherhood’s relations with forces on the ground such as al-Jabha al-Islamiya [Islamic Front], al-Nusra Front and ISIL? And would you join the anti-ISIL coalition?
Walid: We have strong relations with our people inside Syria and we are part of a centrist form of Islam which calls for building a modern Syria based on citizenship and equality of rights and responsibilities. We also call on all the forces on the ground to end their infighting and direct their power towards fighting the tyrannical regime.
AJ: What is your relationship with the Syrian Coalition?
Walid: The Muslim Brotherhood is a founding member of the coalition. Our relationship with it is based on cooperation for the best interests of the Syrian people, even though we believe that the coalition is not doing the best it can and that it needs to work better with the other groups on the ground. Perhaps the government-in-exile, depending on its own resources, can help in that direction.
AJ: How do you see the current trend in the region of labelling the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organisation? Did that effect your relationships and your role in the Syrian uprising?
Walid: We believe that the Muslim Brotherhood is a centrist moderate group and calls for cooperation between all of Arab and Muslim nations. We believe labelling the group as a terrorist organisation does not reflect its true position and ideas.
We also think that our people in Syria can distinguish right from wrong and will not be influenced by those who are trying to defame the image of the Brotherhood. We also try to explain our position to our friends in the region and internationally.
AJ: Your election broke the historic competition between the two wings of the Brotherhood in Aleppo and Hama. What is the message to the Syrian society?
Walid: The elections that took place were ordinary and routine after the end of Mr Riyad al-Shaqfah’s term. The a result of this election shows the real democracy within the group and that any member can reach any position regardless of his background.
AJ: As a new leader, what is the political plan that you have in order to save Syria?
Walid: Our political programme aims to maintain the integrity of the Syrian territories and its people despite what took place politically and within the society itself. The people of Syria have paid a heavy price with thousands of martyrs and the thousands of people who have gone missing in order to achieve their freedom and dignity. Our political programme aims to build a new Syria after a transitional period where we have transitional justice and national reconciliation.
AJ: What is the fate of the party [Wa’ad] that was established by you?
Walid: Wa’ad is not a political party for the Muslim Brotherhood; rather it is a national party with an Islamic background that uses democratic means. It was also established, in addition to the Brotherhood ,by other patriotic groups that represent the different segments of the Syrian society.
After I was elected as the leader of the Brotherhood, I tendered my resignation as the head of the party and as a member of its executive committee. Nabil Qasees then took over the presidency until the next elections.
We believe the party has an important role to play in the future of Syria.