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U.S. reexamining its relationship with Muslim Brotherhood opposition group

The Egyptian government blocks Twitter after thousands of protesters took to the streets of Cairo to demand an end to the 30-year-rule of President Hosni Mubarak.

The movement was founded in 1928 by Hassan el-Banna, an Egyptian imam seeking to overthrow British colonial rule, and it has spread to scores of countries.

In Egypt, the Brotherhood has been officially banned for decades, and many of its leaders have been imprisoned and tortured. Mubarak has warned U.S. officials for years that the group wants to establish a theocracy modeled on the Islamic Republic of Iran, although he has relaxed restrictions on the group's political activities at times.

Members of the movement are often vague about their political goals. In an interview this week with the BBC, Kamal el-Helbawy, a Muslim Brotherhood leader in exile in Britain, said the group wants "freedom, consultation, equality, freedom of everything."

He ducked questions, however, about whether an Egyptian government led by the Brotherhood would guarantee equal rights for other religious groups - such as Egypt's Coptic Christians - and women. When asked whether all women would be required to wear veils, he said, "not necessarily."

Some critics have accused the group of having fundraising and organizational links to terrorist groups. But terrorism experts note that al-Qaeda and other jihadi groups regularly accuse Muslim Brotherhood figures of being apostates and sellouts.

Analysts said the movement strives in public to play down concerns about its agenda, partly for self-preservation. By presenting itself as a moderate group that would embrace a multi-party democracy, it seeks to preempt worries about its goals, said Emad Shahin, an Egyptian American scholar at the University of Notre Dame.

"They don't want to be seen as taking part in an uprising or upheaval that seeks to establish an Iranian-type government," he said. "They need to shield themselves behind a broader opposition front."

Despite the White House's decision Monday to extend a rhetorical olive branch to the Brotherhood, analysts said the Obama administration remains divided over whether and how to deal with the group, both in the near and long term.

J. Scott Carpenter, a State Department official in the George W. Bush administration, said the White House overture could backfire by alienating leaders in the Egyptian military, who could remain in control of the country even if Mubarak is forced out.

"It was completely unnecessary and counterproductive," he said of the White House statement. "It sends the wrong message to the military."

Hillel Fradkin, an analyst at the Hudson Institute, said the U.S. government should be spending more energy reaching out to secular factions that have been active in the anti-Mubarak protests.

"If we're going to deal with people in the opposition, it makes the most sense for us to engage with groups that can be reasonably thought to support a liberal democratic outcome in Egypt," he said.

In contrast, he said deepening a dialogue with the Muslim Brotherhood is unlikely to bear fruit, because the movement's goals are at odds with U.S. interests. "How are we going to persuade them to like us?" he said. "They don't, and they won't."

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