CAIRO The Syrian opposition made progress on Thursday toward forming a transitional government at the first meeting of their new coalition in Cairo and the Muslim Brotherhood emerged as an overwhelmingly powerful kingmaker, delegates said.
In a sign of its strength within the leadership of the opposition, the Brotherhood and its allies pushed for the adoption of an internal constitution that allows choosing the prime minister and the cabinet with a simple majority, rather than a two-thirds majority.
Since the coalition was set up in Qatar earlier this month with Gulf and Western support, the Brotherhood has swiftly assembled a de facto majority bloc, according to insiders keeping tabs of changes in the membership of the coalition.
The meeting in a luxury Cairo hotel, now in its second day, was held behind closed doors.
"It looks like the internal constitution will be pushed through without any real discussion. The Brotherhood has Qatar behind it and they are getting what they want," one delegate said on condition of anonymity.
The formation of a transitional government could encourage greater Western backing for the 20-month revolt against four decades of autocratic rule by Assad and his later father, President Hafez al-Assad.
The bloody repression of an armed Islamist uprising against the elder Assad's rule in the 1980s killed many thousands of Brotherhood followers, as well as leftists, and forced many Syrians to leave the country.
Membership of the Brotherhood became punishable by death and the movement was decimated, to the point that the Brotherhood announced in 2009 that it was 'suspending' opposition to Assad.
The revolt in March last year revived the Brotherhood's fortunes and opened more sources of financing for the organisation from exiled conservative Syrians.
But independent delegates at the Cairo meeting said the process by which a transitional government is being pushed through does not bode well for a democratic future for Syria.
"The West is sending a signal that it is ready to accept the Brotherhood as the only guarantee of stability other than Assad. It has not learnt from what happened in Egypt. I am afraid Syria will become like Iran, rather than a democracy," said one of them, speaking on condition of anonymity.
France, Britain, Turkey and Gulf Arab states have already recognised the coalition as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people. The United States has been more cautious.
U.S. ambassador to Syria Robert Ford said on Thursday Washington "strongly, strongly, strongly" supports efforts to develop the coalition. "We would like to see them continue to develop as an organisation, as a coalition. They are making real progress and I expect that our position with them will evolve as they themselves develop," he said in Washington.
Conspicuously absent from the Cairo discussions was Sheikh Moaz al-Khatib, the coalition's president, a popular Damascene preacher who is increasingly seen as a religious figurehead who is respected inside Syria and an interlocutor with outside powers, rather than a hands-on leader.
Aware they could quickly lose credibility with rebels and opposition activists inside Syria, the 60 delegates postponed possibly divisive discussions on the final membership of the coalition and began talks on an internal constitution as a first step toward forming a transitional government.
Liaison between the coalition and rebels has been assigned to former Prime Minister Riad Hijab, the highest ranking official to defect since the revolt, coalition sources said.
Hijab, a lifelong apparatchik in Assad's Baath Party before his defection, is also being touted as a possible prime minister but his history in Assad's Baath Party could exclude him.
Rima Fleihan, one of a handful of minorities in the coalition, said the government will be small at first, perhaps with four to five members.
Fleihan said the coalition will make it clear that any government it appoints will reject any deal to negotiate a transitional period in Syria unless Assad steps down, a condition not included in international proposals to solve the crisis that has cost tens of thousands of lives.
"The coalition will have nothing to do with any political process that includes talks with the regime, keeps Assad and his security apparatus and does not hold him and his cohorts accountable for 50,000 Syrians dead," she said.
Fleihan, from Syria's Druze community, had previously resigned from the Syrian National Council (SNC), the first major opposition grouping formed in Istanbul last year that became dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood.
The SNC won scant international support. A Western and Gulf backed effort produced the new coalition earlier this month.
The coalition is holding its first full meeting in Cairo ahead of a conference of the Friends of Syria, a grouping of dozens of nations that had pledged mostly non-military backing for the revolt but who are worried by the influence of Islamists in the opposition.
Assad, who belongs to the minority Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shi'ite Islam that has dominated power in Syria since the 1960s, has painted the opposition as Sunni extremists and al Qaeda followers and presented himself as the last guarantor for an undivided Syria.
Sources at the meeting said the coalition could eventually raise its membership from around 60 to 80 to include more minorities and Sunni figures who were overlooked.
But Michel Kilo, a veteran Christian opposition campaigner and a member of the coalition has not attended the Cairo meeting. The main Kurdish political bloc, the Kurdish National Council, has also refused to join.
(Additional reporting by Andrew Quinn in Washington; Editing by Jon Hemming)