AMMAN The leader of Syria's outlawed Muslim Brotherhood declared his support for pro-democracy protesters challenging President Bashar al-Assad and said a harsh crackdown had further fueled the unrest.
In an interview with Reuters, Mohammad Riad Shaqfa said from exile in Saudi Arabia the Brotherhood was not behind the weeks of protests in Syria but supported the demands of demonstrators for greater freedom.
Shaqfa's movement was crushed in Syria after challenging Assad's father Hafez al-Assad, who put down an armed Brotherhood uprising in Hama in 1982, kiling thousands. Membership remains punishable by death under a 1980 law.
"We are with the demands of the people. We do not have an organization in Syria because of the 1980 law, but we do have a large popular presence," said Shaqfa, whose movement ended an 18-month truce with Assad last year.
Vague promises of reform by the 45-year-old Assad were "painkillers designed to break the consensus of the masses" demanding the lifting of emergency law, an end to the Baath Party monopoly on power, the release of thousands of political prisoners, free elections and freedom of speech and assembly.
The Brotherhood traces its roots to an Islamist ideology born in Egypt and is close to the Islamist movement Hamas, which is supported by Syria and Iran.
The Hamas link was key to the Brotherhood's decision to suspend opposition to Baathist rule two years ago. Brotherhood officials said then the priority was resisting Israel rather than toppling Syria's rulers, avowed champions of Arab rights.
Civic and opposition figures inside Syria criticized the move as playing into Assad's hands as he sought to strike a peace deal with the Jewish state. Shaqfa said the Brotherhood had renewed its opposition role several months ago.
"REPRESSION Fueled PROTESTS"
Shaqfa denied suggestions that the Brotherhood met with a senior Syrian secret police chief in Istanbul two weeks ago to strike a deal by which the movement could return to operate in Syria and the 1980 law banning membership would be repealed.
"These suggestions are baseless. The authorities had thought that killings and terror would scare the masses. The effect has been the opposite. Repression only fueled the protests," he said. More than 90 people have been killed by security forces, including dozens of unarmed protesters.
The demonstrations have spread across Syria despite Assad's attempts to defuse resentment by making gestures toward demands for an end to an emergency law and to appease minority Kurds and conservative Sunni Muslims.
Shaqfa also accused Assad of playing on sectarian fears to remain in power and said the Brotherhood did not want Syria to become an Islamic state.
"All tyrants play the same game. They accuse their own people of serving an outside conspiracy while using violence and cunning to survive," he said.
Assad, a member of Syria's Alawite minority which comprises 10 percent of the population, has said the protests are part of a foreign conspiracy to sow sectarian strife.
Assad's father used similar language when he sent mostly Alawite forces to the city of Hama in 1982 to finish off the Muslim Brotherhood and its armed wing.
"Waving the bogey of sectarian strife will not help Bashar because the people are aware of this ploy. Syrians of all sects are taking part in the protests," he said.
Asked about the system the Brotherhood envisions if the tide of Arab revolutions sweeps Syria and its ruling hierarchy falls, Shaqfa said the Brotherhood is "seeking to build a civic society where citizens enjoy freedom without discrimination."
"We believe in pluralism and the ballot box. After reaching this stage we will submit a manifesto based on civic rule with Islam as a reference," he said.
"It is then up to the people to choose."
(Editing by Dominic Evans and Andrew Roche)