CAIRO, Egypt — The U.S. government announced today it was opening a dialogue with Islamist political parties amid sweeping changes brought on by the Arab Spring and announced it was seeking “limited contacts” with members of Egypt’s powerful Muslim Brotherhood.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who recently visited Egypt, said, “It is in the interests of the United States to engage with all parties that are peaceful and committed to nonviolence. We welcome therefore dialogue with those Muslim Brotherhood members who wish to talk with us.”
Clinton made the comments to reporters while traveling in Budapest, according to the Associated Press.
High level diplomats, including Under Secretary of State William J. Burns, were in Cairo this week and held talks with many different leaders of the coalition of movements that took part in the demonstrations, including several leaders of a youth movement within the Muslim Brotherhood, according to a source who was involved in the talks and interviewed by GlobalPost.
The Obama administration has also reached out to Tunisia’s most prominent Islamist party, Ennahda.
After pro-democracy demonstrations toppled Tunisian President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali in January and unleashed a wave of protest movements known as the Arab Spring, the Ennahada party has sought contact with the U.S. and other Western powers, vowing to respect women’s rights and not to impose a puritanical interpretation of sharia, or Islamic law, if it comes to power in future elections.
Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood has also modified some of its more rigid political stances, for example no longer saying that it would outlaw a woman or Christian from becoming president. The Brotherhood is a powerful Islamist organization that operated for decades in the shadows of Egypt’s political landscape as their movement was officially outlawed.
The Brotherhood built a solid following particularly among Egypt’s traditionally religious population. It also appealed to its vast underclass by providing a network of social services, such as hospitals and schools, in areas neglected by the corrupt and brutal government of President Hosni Mubarak, who ruled the country for thirty years before he was toppled in February by the pro-democracy protest movement.
The Brotherhood threw its considerable weight behind the street demonstrations of the January 25th revolution in Egypt. And now as the country lurches toward new elections scheduled for September and the drafting of a new constitution, the Brotherhood has created a new political party and stands to emerge as a major voting block. By conservative estimates, the Brotherhood is expected to gain at least 30 percent of the seats in a new parliament.
The Brotherhood, which dates back to 1929 and is believed to have up to 10 million supporters in Egypt and tens of millions through its worldwide movement which has established chapters in Jordan, Syria, Palestine and across the Arab world, will be putting forward its Islamist agenda. And that has caused considerable concern among Egypt’s Christian minority as well as women and the more liberal, secular movements that took part in the revolution.
Despite the opening of dialogue with the United States, it remains to be seen how Washington will square the Brotherhood’s historic rejection of the 1979 Camp David peace agreement between Egypt and Israel.
In an interview with PBS FRONTLINE and GlobalPost, Brotherhood leader Essam El-Erian, a likely candidate for parliament, said, “Israel has never lived up to the treaty. We will recognize the treaty when Israel lives up to the treaty.”
When asked the question about the Brotherhood’s stance toward Israel, El-Erian abruptly ended the interview. FRONTLINE and PBS worked together on a segment titled “The Brothers” which aired Feb. 22.