DOHA The Muslim Brotherhood has no intention of monopolising the revolt in Syria, the group's deputy leader said, despite fears its close ties with Qatar and Turkey would help it eventually impose a Sunni-dominated government based on sharia law.
Ali Sadreddine al-Bayanouni said in an interview in Doha that the Brotherhood would hope to reach a consensus on the introduction of sharia but would not impose it.
"In Syria no one party can monopolise. Syria has an ethnic, religious and sectarian mosaic that has lived together for years and this coexistence must continue," he told Reuters.
"We don't claim to represent the Syrian people and we don't claim that this revolution is ours. We are one part of the Syrian people," he said. "We can say we are present on the street but not what size that is - coming elections will tell."
His tone echoed that of the Brotherhood in Egypt after the fall of president Hosni Mubarak - a tone seen by critics as more of an attempt to avoid scaring the west than a real change in ideology in an organisation which had to operate underground for decades before last year's "Arab Spring" uprisings.
Some say the Brotherhood is funnelling funds to favoured groups inside Syria to build its presence, while seeking c ontrol of a newly formed National Coalition of opposition groups, in part through influence over independent Islamists.
Bayanouni, a lawyer who left Syria after being imprisoned in the 1970s and stepped down as Brotherhood leader in 2010, said that the organisation should not be seen as a threat.
"When we say sharia is a main base for legislation it does not harm any other group since Islamic sharia accommodates other religions and sects... We'll strive for a national consensus on this," he said. "But we don't impose it on anyone, we'll try to arrive at a national consensus around these principles."
The Brotherhood, set up in 1936, led an insurrection against Hafez al-Assad, father of President Bashar al-Assad, that was crushed in 1982.
The organisation was banned throughout Baath Party rule and has had a much lower profile than in Egypt before the uprising against Assad - which has turned into a civil war that has killed more than 38,000 people.
Many Islamists objected to rule by the Assads, secularists from the minority Alawite sect which they did not consider to be Muslim. Damascus had been the seat of the Umayyad caliphate, an early Arab-Islamic empire.
Rebel groups inside Syria are now increasingly dominated by Salafi Islamists, with whom the Brotherhood have an uncomfortable relationship. Some Salafi militants, including foreigners, have been accused of atrocities and targetting minorities including Alawites.
"INDEPENDENCE OF SYRIAN DECISIONS"
The National Coalition chose Mouaz Alkhatib, a popular Islamist preacher seen as independent from the Brotherhood, as its first leader this week.
AlKhatib has been a regular guest on Qatar's Al Jazeera satellite channel, used by the influential Gulf Arab state to promote Brotherhood-linked Islamists and help facilitate U.S. acceptance of the Islamist network.
Bayanouni rejected suggestions, made by leftist opponents of the rebel movement, that a government in Damascus backed by Shiite Iran would be swapped for a Sunni government backed by Saudi Arabia and Qatar if rebels win.
"We know there is international interest in Syria but we insist on the independence of Syrian decisions. Syrian (opposition) unity is a Syrian demand before it is an international or Arab one," he said.
When asked if Washington had sought guarantees for peace with Israel, which has occupied the Golan Heights since 1967, he said: "With us no one has tried. The Syrian people cannot let go of the Golan. Neither us as Brotherhood nor any political party has the right to give guarantees or let go of occupied land."
"I think the Syrian revolution is a popular revolution and what the Syrian people want in the future to deal with these international issues is what we will abide by," he said. (Writing by Andrew Hammond; editing by Sami Aboudi and Myra MacDonald)