White House walks fine line on Muslim Brotherhood

A look at some of the people shaping Egypt's politics, past, present and -- possibly -- future.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 8, 2011; 9:46 AM

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.

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