The U.S. government has decided to expand contacts with Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, officials said Thursday, a shift that reflects the Islamist group’s growing role since the pro-democracy uprising in the key Arab country.
“We believe, given the changing political landscape in Egypt, that it is in the interests of the United States to engage with all parties that are peaceful and committed to nonviolence, that intend to compete for the parliament and the presidency,” Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said in Budapest. “And we welcome, therefore, dialogue with those Muslim Brotherhood members who wish to talk with us.”
The U.S. government has maintained informal contacts for years with the Brotherhood, which renounced violence in the 1970s. It was technically banned but grudgingly tolerated in Egypt under the regime of Hosni Mubarak, who was forced from power in February.
Meetings between the Brotherhood and U.S. officials increased in the 1990s after the movement won scores of seats in parliament. However, U.S. officials usually said they were talking to the members in their roles as independent parliamentarians, not as Brotherhood representatives.
Egypt’s interim government recognized the Brotherhood’s political party in June. With a network of social-service providers and sympathetic mosques, the Brotherhood is expected to do well in parliamentary elections scheduled for September.
The shift in U.S. policy is likely to upset some U.S. lawmakers. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, declared in June that the Islamist group was “committed to violence and extremism” and said that “the administration must not engage the Muslim Brotherhood.”
Many analysts, however, had considered it inevitable that Washington would open communication with an increasingly important political force. “They’re going to be part of the government,” said Ned Walker, who served as U.S. ambassador to Egypt in the mid-1990s.
He said Mubarak had opposed U.S. meetings with the Brotherhood in the past. “We had to make a choice — did we want to talk to the Brotherhood, or did we want to talk to President Mubarak?” Walker said.
The Brotherhood was founded in 1928 and attracted adherents around the Muslim world — including some who went on to work with Osama bin Laden. However, al-Qaeda has been fiercely critical of the Brotherhood for its opposition to violence.
The Brotherhood has never been considered a terrorist organization by the U.S. government. There have been concerns, however, about its verbal support for the Palestinian organization Hamas, which has used suicide bombings against Israel and is classified as a terrorist group by the State Department.
“I really do think this is a question of routine contacts, the kind diplomats have with politicians across the political spectrum,” said Michele Dunne, an Egypt expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
Clinton said that contacts with the Brotherhood would be “limited” and that U.S. officials would emphasize “democratic principles, and especially a commitment to nonviolence, respect for minority rights and the full inclusion of women in any democracy.”
A spokesman for the Brotherhood in Cairo said the movement had not had formal meetings with the U.S. government.
“We welcome such relationships with everyone because those relations will lead to clarifying our vision,” spokesman Mohamed Saad el-Katatni told Reuters. “But it won’t include or be based on any intervention in the internal affairs of the country.”
Daniel Kurtzer, who was U.S. ambassador to Egypt in the late 1990s, said that resuming conversations with the Brotherhood would be useful at a time when the movement is engaged in internal debate over such issues as the roles of women and people of other faiths in the Egyptian government.
“If that debate is serious . . . why not be part of it?” asked Kurtzer.