White House walks fine line on Muslim Brotherhood

February 8, 2011

As the uprising in Egypt enters its third week, two questions persist in Washington: Is the Obama administration in direct contact with the Muslim Brotherhood? And, would it accept the group as part of a new Egyptian government?

So far, the White House has walked an exceedingly fine line.

Multiple reports suggest that the United States has been in quiet contact with the banned group for years and that the Obama White House is growing more open to the Muslim Brotherhood having a role in a new government, once Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak steps aside.

Banned in Egypt since 1954, the group has a split image here: as a hostile Islamic organization whose fundamentalist wing could be dangerous for the United States if it took control; and as a band of aging revolutionaries who would play a vital but minority role in any coalition government, enjoying support from no more than 30 percent of the Egyptian public.

Obama, in an interview Sunday night with Fox News Channel's Bill O'Reilly, said the group was not nearly as influential as many of its critics fear.

"I think they're one faction in Egypt," he told O'Reilly. "They don't have majority support in Egypt. But they're well organized. There are strains of their ideology that are anti-U.S. There's no doubt about it."

For U.S. officials trying to gently guide Egypt's future from afar without provoking a backlash, the Muslim Brotherhood's involvement might be necessary, even inevitable.

That possibility clashes with domestic politics, however - from worries among pro-Israel groups about the rise of another Islamic regime in the region, to potential criticism from conservatives that Obama failed to stop the spread of Islamic fundamentalism. So there has been a steady stream of vague messages out of the White House, both to reporters and private groups.

After White House press secretary Robert Gibbs told reporters that any transition to democracy "has to include a whole host of important non-secular actors" and must "include opposition voices and parties being involved in this process as we move toward free and fair elections," several pro-Israel groups sought assurances that did not mean the Muslim Brotherhood.

Late last week, a National Security Council official, Daniel B. Shapiro, said on a conference call with Jewish organization leaders that it was U.S. policy not to deal with the Muslim Brotherhood, according to a report by the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. Whether the group is involved in building a new government, the JTA quoted Shapiro saying, is "something that will be determined by the Egyptian people. ... The United States will not be an arbiter."

But White House officials - including, now, Obama himself - have been intentionally vague in the days since, suggesting they are open to Muslim Brotherhood participation without saying so outright.

In his Fox interview, Obama walked carefully around questions about the group.

"Here's the thing that we have to understand: There are a whole bunch of secular folks in Egypt, there are a whole bunch of educators and civil society in Egypt that wants to come to the fore as well," Obama said. "And it's important for us not to say that our only two options are either the Muslim Brotherhood or a suppressed Egyptian people."

Asked by O'Reilly whether he wants to see the Muslim Brotherhood in the Egyptian government, Obama said: "What I want is a representative government in Egypt. And I have confidence that if Egypt moves in an orderly transition process, that we will have a government in Egypt that we can work with together as a partner."

Protesters in Egypt have urged Obama to call for Mubarak to step down immediately. But administration officials have cautioned that an immediate Mubarak exit would trigger elections in just 60 days. As State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley put it Monday on NPR News, that gives the Muslim Brotherhood a distinct advantage.

"There're only one or two elements within Egyptian society today that have the organizational, you know, skill to run an effective campaign," he said.

"The Muslim Brotherhood being one of them," added NPR's Steve Inskeep.

"Being one of them," Crowley added.

Palin criticizes White House on Egypt - maybe

Former Alaska governor Sarah Palin, for her part, had another kind of vague message in her first remarks on Egypt.

In an interview with the Christian Broadcasting Network, Palin said Obama had gotten the so-called "3 a.m. phone call" from the 2008 presidential campaign - and let it go to voice mail.

"And nobody yet has explained to the American public what they know, and surely they know more than the rest of us know - who it is who will be taking the place of Mubarak and no, not, not real enthused about what it is that's being done on a national level and from D.C. in regards to understanding all the situation there in Egypt," Palin said.

She went on to add, "And, in these areas that are so volatile right now, because obviously it's not just Egypt but the other countries too where we are seeing uprisings, we know that now more than ever, we need strength and sound mind there in the White House. We need to know what it is that America stands for, so we know who it is that America will stand with. And we do not have all that information yet."

Asked about Palin's critique Monday, Gibbs demurred.

"I've got to tell you, I read that answer several times," Gibbs said. "And I still don't really know what she said."

kornbluta@washpost.com wallstenp@washpost.com

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