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Strength of Egyptian Islamists proves a test for Obama’s pro-democracy policy in the Middle East

The strong electoral showing of Islamist parties in Egypt has provided the first major test of the Obama administration’s pledge to support democratically elected governments in the Arab world, even when its preferred candidates lose.

U.S. officials described recent outreach to the Muslim Brotherhood, which appears destined to win the largest share of parliamentary seats, as a chance to put in practice policies President Obama outlined nearly three years ago in a major speech proposing a new relationship with the Muslim world centered on mutual respect.

Last May, three months after Egyptian leader Hosni Mubarak resigned in the face of massive public protests and U.S. abandonment, Obama reiterated the theme, while acknowledging that “not every country will follow our particular form of representative democracy, and there will be times when our short-term interests don’t align perfectly with our long-term vision for the region.”

For now, White House officials said they are taking the long-shunned Brotherhood at its word, accepting promises of respect for the rule of law and civil rights and waiting to see how it governs.

“We have . . . had some good reassurances from different interlocutors, and we will continue to seek those kinds of reassurances going forward,” State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said Thursday.

Jeffrey D. Feltman, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Near East Affairs, is expected to meet Friday and Saturday with Muslim Brotherhood leaders and other political figures. Those discussions are likely to be easier than the talks that began his four-day visit, with the current military-led government that replaced Mubarak. (MOHAMED AZAKIR/REUTERS)

A senior administration official, speaking on the condition of anonymity about the sensitive talks, said that U.S. interlocutors are “not just in a listening mode; we are actively making clear that we want to see an inclusive Egypt that respects women and minorities, as well as the importance of regional stability. We’re hearing the right things, but the proof will be in their actions.”

The top U.S. diplomat for the Middle East, who arrived in Cairo on Wednesday night, told a news conference there that the United States has “no more important partner in the Arab world than Egypt.”

Assistant Secretary of State Jeffrey D. Feltman is expected to meet Friday and Saturday with Muslim Brotherhood leaders and other political figures. Those discussions are likely to be easier than the talks that began his four-day visit, with the current military-led government that replaced Mubarak.

Tensions between the two governments have been high since Egyptian security forces raided at least 10 pro-democracy civil society organizations, including three American groups, as part of a crackdown on dissent ahead of the crucial transition to elected governance.

The ruling military council had promised U.S. officials that the International Republican Institute, the National Democratic Institute and Freedom House — all Washington-based democracy-building groups that receive U.S. government funding — would be reopened and their confiscated equipment returned.

But the offices remain closed, and Egyptian government officials have publicly defended the raids and vowed to continue investigations into what they believe is illicit foreign funding.

After meeting with Foreign Minister Mohamed Kamal Amr, Feltman said he was “encouraged” that the organizations would be legally registered and allowed to operate.

U.S. influence with long-standing allies in the Egyptian military will be further tested in the coming weeks, as civilian groups move to form a government they expect to take over sooner rather than later.

Although final results of the last round of lower-house elections this week are not yet known, “it’s clear now that the Muslim Brotherhood will have a very large plurality, over 40 percent, in parliament,” said Marwan Muasher, vice president for studies at the Washington-based Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and a former Jordanian foreign minister.

“One thing to watch is whether they will choose to have a coalition with the Salafists,” the radically conservative Islamists who have won a surprising 20 percent of the vote, Muasher said, “or with liberals” in the secular parties the United States had hoped would make a stronger electoral showing.

Some conservative Republicans, including a number of the current GOP presidential candidates, have denounced Obama’s Muslim outreach as indicative of what they call his international “apology” for the actions of previous administrations.

But Muasher and other experts on the region have described it as a pragmatic realization that “the option of not dealing with the Islamists is simply not there. You cannot say you’re not going to deal with them, because that would in effect be saying you’re not going to deal with a very large number of countries in the Middle East, including Egypt, Morocco and Tunisia,” where a moderate Islamist party in October won the region’s first democratic elections following the Arab Spring uprisings.

That recognition, he said, also requires a more sophisticated understanding of divisions within the Islamic world. “People in the West think political Islam is either al-Qaeda or Hamas and Hezbollah,” Muasher said. “The overwhelming majority of political Islam in the region belongs to the Brotherhood, and the last time they carried arms was in the 1960s.”

Meanwhile, Feltman also met in Cairo with members of the Cairo-based Arab League to discuss continued unrest in Syria and brutal crackdowns on protesters by Syrian security forces.

Fadel reported from Cairo.

Karen DeYoung is associate editor and senior national security correspondent for the Washington Post.



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