Exiled Opposition Leader Plans for Syrian Democracy

The exiled leader of Syria's Muslim Brotherhood, Ali Sadreddine Bayanouni, plans for a "democratic transition" in his homeland. Under threat of sanctions, Damascus has agreed to cooperate in a U.N. probe into the murder of former Lebanese leader Rafik Hariri — which many see as an opportunity for reform.

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The Muslim Brotherhood is also outlawed in Syria. The group's leader lives in exile, and he's growing more confident he might be going home soon, courtesy of a growing political crisis in his homeland. Syria's government is cooperating with a United Nations investigation into the murder of Rafiq Hariri, Lebanon's former prime minister. Syria's president, Bashar Al-Assad, has denounced the probe as a US-led conspiracy, but his family's 40-year grip on power appears shakier than ever before. NPR's Deborah Amos has our story from London.

(Soundbite of call to prayer)

DEBORAH AMOS reporting:

A small alarm clock on a bookcase signals time for prayer for 67-year-old Ali Sadreddine Bayanouni, the exiled leader of Syria's Muslim Brotherhood. Syria is a world away from this modest home in a London suburb. Bayanouni stays in touch through e-mails; an Arabic-language satellite channel brings the latest news. After 39 years of exile, Bayanouni says he's closer to going home than ever before. Convinced the Assad regime's hard-line approach to the Hariri investigation is misguided, Bayanouni says it will eventually lead the regime to collapse.

Mr. ALI SADREDDINE BAYANOUNI (Exiled Leader of Syria's Muslim Brotherhood): (Through Translator) By their own behavior, it seems the regime is unbalanced. It's lost all reason.

AMOS: He is preparing Syria's Muslim Brotherhood for a political role. Bayanouni says he wants a democratic state, not a religious one. The Muslim Brotherhood recently signed a document called the Damascus Declaration that, for the first time, unites the Muslim Brotherhood outlawed in Syria with secular and minority opposition groups inside the country.

Mr. BAYANOUNI: (Through Translator) Our relationship with the secular parties is an old one. There is no problem with it.

AMOS: For the Syrian regime, there is no cooperation with the Muslim Brotherhood. By law, membership is a capital offense after the organization nearly brought the country to civil war in the 1980s. The Syrian army crushed a rebellion in the town of Hama that ended in the deaths of more than 10,000 people.

The strict law has posed some dangers even in exile for the Levant Foundation, a private research group in London. Editor Obeida Nahaas(ph), a Syrian Islamist, says the center's newsletters are banned in Syria.

Mr. OBEIDA NAHAAS (Newsletter Editor, Levant Foundation): It's illegal, and one of our readers actually was jailed for two and a half years for reading the Web site and forwarding the newsletter to his friends.

AMOS: A newsletter that publishes the latest on the regime and the politics of opposition. The new unity, secular and Islamist speaking the same political language, is an important step, says Nahaas. But after almost four decades of one-party and one-family rule, internal opposition has been damaged, he says, and the Muslim Brotherhood can't test its support from exile. For Nahaas, political groups inside and outside the country are not yet strong enough to challenge the regime.

Mr. NAHAAS: What is happening now is the regime is weak as well. The more the regime is weakened, the more the opposition is becoming less weak. It's not becoming stronger yet.

AMOS: Is democracy possible in Syria? Who can rebuild politics in the country? When Syrians consider those questions, regime change in neighboring Iraq is a frightening model. And Syria's Muslim Brotherhood comes with historical baggage after the violent confrontation with the government. Bayanouni, leader of Syria's Muslim Brotherhood since 1996, says he rejects the politics of revenge and aims for a peaceful, democratic transition.

Mr. BAYANOUNI: (Through Translator) We reject any violent means. We concluded the violent reaction to the government was a mistake.

AMOS: As he watches news reports on big electoral gains for Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood in recent parliamentary elections, Bayanouni outlines his vision for Syria.

Mr. BAYANOUNI: (Through Translator) We will not be keen to run the country alone. After 42 years of destruction, the country needs a wide alliance to rebuild it. We are looking to share power, not to rule the country.

AMOS: Bayanouni was interviewed this week by Al-Jazeera, the Arabic-language satellite channel. It was the first time many Syrians had ever seen him or heard him speak. He made his case for democracy and a political role for the Muslim Brotherhood. Deborah Amos, NPR News, London.

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