Since taking power in March 1963, the Baath Party has managed to subjugate or expel all political opponents from its way, whether through political containment, as the National Progressive Front, which included a number of parties that were dominant in the Syrian political scene at the time, or through arrest, prosecution and prisons. That’s what happened to its opponents who refused to join this front. However, his struggle with the Muslim Brotherhood took a form almost like conflict of existence, as it gradually moved from its political level in the fifties, sixties and seventies of the last century to its zero level in the eighties of the last century and after.
This conflict, besides being a zero-sum conflict, casts its shadow over the entire Syrian political map, It changed the equation completely, not only at the level of the nature of power and opposition, but also at the level of Syrian society and the Syrian political development, which declined and was destroyed by this conflict, which destroyed the achievements with it. It destroyed the accumulation of more than half a century of Syrian knowledge, politically, socially and economically, as well as political practices.
Thus, it is imperative that we know the roots and causes of this conflict:
In Syria, it is known that the MB is the heirs of the period of charitable and Islamic societies that were born during the Ottoman reforms when religious associations began to emerge. The outward appearance of them was religious charitable while in fact it was political to confront the policy of the Ottoman reforms aimed at removing the power from the clergy. The pace of those associations after the Ottoman reformers introduced an educational law in 1869 that works in a unified system: primary schools, intermediate, high school and then higher education. That was an alarm bell for clergy who began to move to protect their interests and what they saw as a threat to Islam, especially after the establishment of a British Protestant school for girls’ education in Damascus. This led the Wali of Damascus Medhaat Pasha to persuade some Damascus clergy to establish the “Islamic Purposes” Association, after which the associations continued during the French Mandate, and with unification of some of them, the Muslim Brotherhood was born in the 1940s.
On the other side of the Ottoman reforms, other streams and associations were born that believed in the Ottoman reforms and sought them first, and then split from them later to form the modern national trend demanding independence from the Ottomans.
These were the sons of landlords and feudal lords, and some of them belonged to traditional religious trend. But it deviated later partially to form the Arab nationalist trend without giving up their Islam and religion. It found that the priority was nationalism and not religion and demanded to get rid of the heavy legacy of the Ottoman Empire and work to adopt the values of Modernity, institutions and civic education.
To reflect on the birth of both the Baath and the MB in Syria, reveals that they were born as opponents.
Although the MB has always presented themselves as a movement that believes in democracy and modernity, especially during what is known as the Syrian liberal stage after the independence from the French mandate, when democracy allowed them to reach the Syrian parliament, especially at the stage when Mustafa al-Sibai who was the MB’s general observer, their deep structure remained as it is in its position on modernity and standing against change, which has always been evident in the battles related to the Syrian constitution. Where their view of the state has always been a pre-modern view that reflects the structure of their thinking based on sectarian numerical predominance in its essence, and not on citizenship. Here, we will review some battles and debates that took place in this regard.
In the 1950’s constitution, the Constitutional Committee, in which MB deputies, including al-Sibai, had a prominent role, an article passed saying that the state religion is Islam, which sparked protests from other sects, parties and parliamentary blocs, forcing al-Sibai to find a solution. They had changed it to: “the religion of the head of state is Islam.” And that “Islamic jurisprudence is the only source of legislation” and “freedom of belief is safeguarded, and the state respects all monotheistic religions, and guarantees the freedom to perform all their rituals, provided that this does not violate public order” and “the personal status of religious sects is safeguarded and protected.”
Other conflicts between both Parties after al-Baath reached to power
- The Baath Party’s nationalization, agrarian reform and the confiscation of large and private property and distributing them to the peasants, practically led to the MB losing one of its funding sources coming from these affected groups. And that practically explains to us the opposition of Mustafa al-Sibai – despite the “socialism of Islam” he talked about in his book, as he agreed only on distribution of state lands to the peasants, which constituted a factor in an implicit clash between the Baath and the MB.
- Even after Hafez al-Assad retracted the leftist policy of Salah Jadid with regard to land distribution and nationalization, the matter returned to his advantage as he succeeded in winning the merchants in his favor, which constituted a double loss for the MB, who lost two important sources of financial and moral support.
- With the return of democracy to Syria after the secession, the MB won 10 seats in the parliamentary elections of the same year (1961). But that reality did not continue much, as the March 1963 coup d’état, which brought about the Baath to power, not only wiped out these MB gains, but also stripped the MB of almost everything. Then a battle of breaking bones started between the two parties, its first signs appeared in the battle of Sultan Mosque in 1964, which began because one of the MB’s students wrote a Quraan verse on the blackboard (And they who do not judge in accordance with what Allah has revealed are, indeed, deniers of the truth). Some of the students objected that, and then the incidents turned into a sit-in in Hama, at the instigation of Marwan Hadid and Saeed Hawwa. The army then intervened and end the battle militarily. This eventually led to widening the gap between the MB and the Baath, where the battles started escalating from that moment, especially under the rule of emergency that has become permanent and continuous.
- The different positions of the Baath and the MB on the majority of issues in the political arena: Arab unity, the Palestinian case, the Lebanese war, which further complicated the battle between them.
- The conflict between both parties is over the bases, as despite the Baath coming to power, the Syrian cities formed points of resistance for it, and it was unable to penetrate its solid and socially cohesive structure. A structure that historically and socially was closer to the MB than the power. Accordingly, the conflict between them took the character of a fierce struggle to win supporters. Here, the ruling Baathist elite was concerned due to the ability of MB to win these groups and their inability to reach them, at a time when their policy in power led to the loss of their traditional social bases in the countryside after the exposure of their authoritarianism and corruption.
- The Baathist dictatorship and its quest to monopolize power and dominate society through the domestication of unions, the suppression of civil society, and the monitoring of mosques, endowments and charities, led to hitting and reducing the financial flows that reach the MB, especially after the Baathist authority was also able to stop their flows of merchant donations through Assad’s ability to attract them, which constituted a factor of conflict and tension between the two parties.
- Assad played on building new religious forces loyal to him, with the aim of splitting the unity of the Islamic rank on the one hand, and building a religious legitimacy for his rule that he needed after questioning his Islamism. For this reason, he worked to build, support, and manufacture clerics loyal to him, who would speak in his name to their supporters that he could not reach, thus helping to withdraw these supporters from the hands of the MB and other opponents. This is clearly evident in the battle of the Mufti of the Republic, where the Baath Party threw its weight against Hassan Habanka’s al-Midany candidacy in favor of Ahmed Kaftaro in 1965. Assad appointed Kaftaru himself as a member of the Parliament. And if we know that Hassan Habanka and Saeed Hawwa were among the most important clerics who led the battle against the Assad constitution in 1970, the deep meaning behind all of this will become clear to us.
- The MB failed to find a figure who possessed the leadership and diplomatic charisma that Mustafa al-Sibai had; against the Islamist radicalism of Professor Issam Al-Attar. The MB movement did not produce a leader after al-Attar’s exit from Syria; while the Baath benefited from its control over the army and its use of the principle of drying up political life completely.
In conclusion, we can say that due to the opposition that governed this conflict between the MB and the Baath as mentioned above, according to its deep roots, this conflict was governed by one of two, either the Baath should become democratic believing in the transfer of power, or the MB should become less radical and more reconciled with modernity and its vocabulary, or that the two parties inevitably reach an absolute clash. And that’s what happened.