In a controversial move, the United States has decided to formalize relations with the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) in Egypt, according to a statement Wednesday by a senior U.S. official to Reuters.
"The political landscape in Egypt has changed, and is changing," said the official, speaking on condition of anonymity. "It is in our interests to engage with all of the parties that are competing for parliament or the presidency."
Seeking to downplay the significance of the announcement, the official presented the decision as a progression in U.S. policy rather than a radical shift in America's stance towards the MB.
Under the regime of ousted President Hosni Mubarak, the MB was a banned political organization, whose members were allowed to run for parliament by running as independents. The U.S. policy, in place since 2006, sought to exploit this loophole by allowing diplomats to maintain contact only with Brotherhood members elected in this way. The new policy allows diplomats to deal directly with low-level Brotherhood party officials as well as MB parliamentarians.
Commenting to journalists in Budapest, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said the "Obama administration is continuing the approach of limited contacts with the Muslim Brotherhood that have existed on and off for about five or six years." She added that the supposed shift "is not a new policy but it is one that we're re-engaging in."
New or old, the decision to resume formal contacts is drawing criticism from those who are skeptical of the MB and its violent, Islamist origins, and continued support for "resistance."
"It's going to stir up demons," said Edward Walker, a former U.S. ambassador to Egypt and Israel. "You have got an awful lot of people who are not very happy with what the roots of the Brotherhood have spawned…There will be people who will not accept that the Brotherhood is of a new or different character today." Among the byproducts of the MB ideology is the designated terrorist organization Hamas.
Though Clinton insisted that the U.S. "will continue to emphasize the importance and support for democratic principles" in its dealings with the MB, critics argue that the ideas conveyed by some Brotherhood members are inconsistent with these principles. Some members speak of creating an "Islamic State," causing concern that such a state will be based entirely on Islamic (Sharia) law and not democracy.
Adding to the skepticism is the fact that the Brotherhood is currently divided and has been less than transparent in its approach to Egypt's democratic elections to be held in September.
MB spokesman Mahmud Ghozlan said his group is willing to open communications with the U.S. as long as its "values are respected." He noted that there had been "no direct contacts" in the past.
In addition to the U.S. policy shift regarding the MB in Egypt, unsubstantiated reports indicate that the U.S. government may have initiated contact with the Syrian MB as well. In a recent conference in London, representatives from the U.S. and U.K. allegedly met with the former leader of the group, Ali al-Bayanuni.