By Craig Whitlock
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 2, 2011; 8:56 PM
As it braces for the likelihood of a new ruler in Egypt, the U.S. government is rapidly reassessing its tenuous relationship with the Muslim Brotherhood, an opposition movement whose fundamentalist ideology has long been a source of distrust in Washington.
Although the group has played a secondary role in the swelling protests that are threatening to topple President Hosni Mubarak, U.S. officials have acknowledged the political reality that the Muslim Brotherhood is poised to assume at least a share of power should Egypt hold free and fair elections in the coming months.
On Monday, in what analysts said was a clear reference to the Brotherhood, the White House said a new government in Egypt should "include a whole host of important non-secular actors."
The move drew the skepticism of some U.S. officials who have argued that the White House should embrace opposition groups that are more likely to support a democratic government in Egypt, rather than one dedicated to the establishment of religious law.
It also marked a change from previous days, when Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and other officials expressed concern that the uprising in Egypt could shift power to an Islamist government much like the one in Iran, where ayatollah-led factions elbowed aside other groups to seize control of the country in 1979.
Officially, the U.S. government has long shunned the Muslim Brotherhood because of doubts about its stated commitment to non-violence and democratic principles. For years, however, U.S. officials have engaged in back-channel talks with Egyptian members of the movement in recognition of its substantial popular support.
The unofficial contacts have taken place sporadically since the 1990s but became more frequent after members of the Brotherhood were elected to the Egyptian Parliament in 2005. Afterward, U.S. diplomats and lawmakers held several meetings with Brotherhood leaders, including at the U.S. Embassy in Cairo.
U.S. officials justified the meetings by saying they were merely speaking with duly-elected members of the Egyptian legislature.
"I do think that having contacts with the Muslim Brotherhood was not a bad idea," said Robert Malley, an official in the Bill Clinton administration who directs the Middle East and North Africa program for the International Crisis Group. "They are an important constituency in Egypt. They're very likely to play a role in any future arrangements there."
Some U.S. officials and analysts have long urged the State Department to reach out even further to the Brotherhood.
"If we are truly going to engage with the 99 percent of Muslims who do not support terrorism or violence, then we've got to engage indigenous groups, including Islamic political parties," said Emile Nakhleh, a former CIA official who directed the agency's political Islam analysis program.
Although the Brotherhood is Egypt's best organized opposition group, with an active charitable arm that dispenses social services nationwide, Nakhleh said it would not necessarily win a majority of votes in an open election. "They would be a hefty minority," he said, predicting that it would receive support from about 25 to 30 percent of the Egyptian population.
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."