Members of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood began a week-long charm offensive in Washington on Tuesday, meeting with White House officials, policy experts and others to counter persistent fears about the group’s emergence as the country’s most powerful political force.
The revolution that ousted Hosni Mubarak has rapidly transformed the Brotherhood from an opposition group that had been formally banned into a political juggernaut controlling nearly half the seats in Egypt’s newly elected parliament.
With its rise, however, have come concerns from Egypt’s secularists as well as U.S. officials that the Islamist group could remake the country, threatening the rights of women and religious minorities. Such fears were only exacerbated by the Brotherhood’s recent decision to field a candidate in upcoming presidential elections, despite previous pledges that it would not do so.
In meeting with U.S. officials, Brotherhood representatives were expected to depict the organization as a moderate and socially conscious movement pursuing power in the interest of Egyptians at large.
“We represent a moderate, centrist Muslim viewpoint. The priorities for us are mainly economic, political — preserving the revolution ideals of social justice, education, security for the people,” Sondos Asem, a member of the delegation, said Tuesday in an interview with reporters and editors of The Washington Post.
In the interview, members of the delegation defended the decision by the group’s political wing, the Freedom and Justice Party, to field a presidential candidate.
“We approached people outside of the Brotherhood that we respected, like people in the judiciary, but none of them would agree to be nominated,” said Khaled al-Qazzaz, foreign relations coordinator for the party.
Qazzaz and others said that a candidate elected from outside the Brotherhood could have instituted radical changes and dissolved the parliament.
But the Brotherhood’s rise has caused it to spar with liberal and secular groups. Liberals and Coptic Christians who were chosen to be part of the effort to draw up a new constitution recently walked out of meetings in protest, saying the body was unbalanced, with an overwhelming number of representatives from Islamist groups such as the Brotherhood.
“We believe there is a dire attempt to hinder efforts of the constitutional assembly because its success would mean that we are on the right track, that the democracy is working and government is changing,” Asem said.
In addition to allaying American fears about their political ambitions, the Brotherhood is hoping to mend U.S.-Egypt relations in the aftermath of Egypt’s decision to prosecute American and Egyptian pro-democracy advocates. Outrage over the prosecutions had prompted lawmakers to press the Obama administration to withhold $1.3 billion in U.S. aid to Egypt’s military.
“This mistrust is a wall that needs to come down, but it can’t just be one side that brings it down. It has to be both sides,” said Abdul Mawgoud R. Dardery, a lawmaker and member of the Brotherhood delegation.
It is unclear how representative the visiting delegation is and how closely the values its members described mirror those of the core leaders of the Brotherhood. Those sent on the trip said they were chosen in part for their fluency in English and their familiarity and ease with American culture. But the delegation did not include the decision makers at the top of the Brotherhood’s leadership.
On two of the biggest questions among U.S. observers — the Brotherhood’s relationship with Egypt’s military and its position on U.S. aid to the military — the visiting delegation gave only vague answers.
For months, rumors have swirled that the Brotherhood was secretly talking with the military about sharing power in the new government, but of late, the two sides have seemed increasingly hostile, with the Brotherhood demanding that military leaders dissolve the interim government they appointed.
Members of the Brotherhood delegation, who met with White House officials Tuesday, are scheduled to meet with more U.S. officials in coming days and attend several events at think tanks.
At those events, they are likely to be scrutinized as representatives of Egypt’s ruling party.
“People will be looking to see how much they are really beginning to act like a political party in power, whether they are thinking in concrete policy terms,” said Marina Ottaway, a Middle East expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace who arranged the delegation’s visit. “Do they have any answers to question to economic problems? How much do they understand the world as it exists today and the concerns of other countries?
“You have to remember, many of the people now in charge of the Brotherhood spent the last years in jail, isolated from what was going on,” Ottaway said. “They are only now emerging, and so there’s a great desire among them for acceptance and legitimacy as players on the international political scene.”
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