There was once a time when U.S. officials shunned Arab Islamist parties, frowned on their election victories, and denied them U.S. visas. But times are changing.
Delegates from Egypt’s Freedom and Justice Party, a group affiliated to the Muslim Brotherhood, are in Washington for their first official visit since Hosni Mubarak was toppled last year. Only days after announcing their party’s candidate in the first presidential election since the revolution, the visiting delegates have met with members of Congress and White House officials and held public discussions at Georgetown University and Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
Outlawed under the Mubarak regime, members of the Muslim Brotherhood and more hard-line Salafist parties have emerged, not surprisingly, as a powerful force in the Egyptian elections, thwarting the secular groups that are believed to have been the drivers of last year’s revolution. As a group that founded itself on the principles of grassroots activism, the Muslim Brotherhood has long resonated with the people of Egypt, where at many as 30 percent of the population lives below the poverty line, according to the United Nations.
The delegates sent to Washington were all articulate English speakers, two of whom hold doctorates from U.S. institutions. They were non-evasive, answering impassioned questions from the Georgetown audience about religious persecution and Sharia law. The message was not specifically linked to Islam. They did not criticize—or even mention—Israel. They stressed that Egypt is open for business and encouraged free trade and foreign direct investment.
“They talked about markets, integrating Egypt into the global economy, attracting investments, all things that people in Washington and the financial community would welcome,” said Samer Shehata, a professor at Georgetown University and an expert on the Muslim Brotherhood. “They aren’t necessarily Washington’s first choice, but we see now that Washington is adapting to the new reality.”
The visit comes at a turbulent time in Egypt’s transitional period, with the Freedom and Justice Party under fire at home. Criticized for flip-flopping on its support for the January 25 Revolution and whether to field a candidate for the presidency, the group has struggled to maintain credibility among some Egyptians. Last month, efforts to form a constitutional drafting committee fizzled when parties including the Free Egyptians, founded by billionaire Naguib Sawiris, and the socialist Tagammu Party withdrew from the 100-seat committee, citing attempts by the Muslim Brotherhood to monopolize the selection of members.
“It’s really just typical slippery politician behavior,” said Hani Sabra, an analyst at Eurasia Group. “When it’s convenient for them to ally themselves with the Salafists, they will. When it’s not, they will ally themselves with the secular groups.”
On Wednesday, Freedom and Justice adviser Hussein Al-Kazzaz defended the party’s decision to run in the election, saying it was in defiance of an effort by Egypt’s ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces to block it from participation. “We engaged in detailed discussion with SCAF and they said, ‘Your reign on the country stops at parliament,’” he said at Georgetown. Abdul Mawgoud Dardery, a member of Egypt’s parliament from Luxur, attempted to ease concerns that the group sought to implement Sharia law, saying the party believes in a constitution based on “Sharia principles, not Sharia rulings.”
Visiting delegates from the Freedom and Justice Party will be joined in Washington by Islamists from Tunisia, Libya, and Morocco. Earlier this week, a Republican delegation led by Rep. David Dreier of California met with the Freedom and Justice Party’s presidential candidate, Khairat al-Shater, in Cairo to discuss topics ranging from human rights to women’s rights. The meetings follow a tense period in U.S.-Egypt relations after more than a dozen foreign NGO workers, among them American, were indicted by Egyptian courts for operating without a license and barred from leaving Egypt.
Of great concern for Washington is that an Islamist government would not adhere to specific long-standing agreements such as the Camp David Accords with Israel and various military and trade pacts with the U.S. A broader but very real worry is that Christians living in Egypt could lose their rights or even be at risk under an Islamist regime. Dardery staunchly denied that Christians are at risk in the “new Egypt” but offered no concrete plans or new security measures that might prevent attacks on the country’s minority Coptic Christians.
Holding bilateral meetings with the Muslim Brotherhood was always seen as a risky political move, as it was deemed a snub to Mubarak, once America’s biggest ally in the region. Then, in 2005, despite the bans and hurdles (and riot police) laid out by the Mubarak regime, the Muslim Brotherhood earned a significant portion of the seats in parliament. A month later, in January 2006, Hamas rose to victory in a historic Palestinian legislative election. Washington could no longer turn a blind eye to this indisputable political force.
“The Bush administration was quite alarmed” by these victories, said Georgetown’s Shehata. “It was at about that time that Bush’s freedom agenda came to a screeching halt because they realized if you have elections in the Middle East, Islamists are going to do well.”
Since then, America has made some efforts to reach out to the Muslim Brotherhood. In 2007, the Bush administration allowed then-House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer to meet with the Muslim Brotherhood in Cairo, a concession to meeting with former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. Members of the Muslim Brotherhood and other opposition groups also were invited to attend President Obama’s speech in Cairo in 2009.
Egypt’s first post-revolution presidential election is schedule for late May, although many analysts fear that fighting between the political parties could delay the vote further.