Smoke and mirrors

Is the US softening its stance towards the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood? Gihan Shahine digs into the controversy surrounding the first known meeting between the US and the group since 9/11

The relationship between the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood and the US administration seems to have been receiving much foreign and local media attention in recent weeks. This month’s issue of Newsweek, for instance, features a lead story suggesting an “apparent softening” in the US approach towards the banned group. The article maintains that the issue of how the US should handle the Brotherhood has recently been a bone of contention among US officials and experts.

What seems to have brought the US- Brotherhood issue back to the fore is the recent controversy surrounding two brief encounters on 8 April between US House of Representatives majority leader Steny Hoyer and Mohamed Saad El-Katatni, a Brotherhood member and leader of an independent bloc in the People’s Assembly allied with the movement. Hoyer and El-Katatni first met in parliament during a visit by a congressional group which got together with MPs of different political stripes, and then later the same day at a cocktail party held at the residence of US Ambassador to Cairo Francis Ricciardone.

Although neither meeting was secret or personal, it remains questionable whether both the US and the Brotherhood have changed their outlook towards the other, whether the two sides have any common interests, and if so, whether the Egyptian regime would ever allow such an alliance.

For its part, the Brotherhood has always been highly critical of the US “double-standard” in foreign policy, especially Washington’s support for Israel and the war on Iraq. On the other side, the US tends to see the group as hostile to US interests in the region and has tended to shun it. Only a few weeks ago, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice refused to meet any Brotherhood members while she was visiting Egypt on the grounds that it is an illegal group.

Thus, Newsweek considered the meeting between Hoyer and El-Katatni signalled “a shift in Bush administration policy towards the Muslim Brotherhood”. An article published this month by Foreign Affairs, America’s most influential publication on international affairs and foreign policy, similarly suggests that “there is also a current within the Brotherhood willing to engage with the United States.”

Hoyer, however, said he just wanted to hear “alternative voices in Egypt [but] didn’t ask that the Brotherhood be included in the reception.” He told Newsweek : “Frankly, we were surprised to see him.” A senior US official, speaking on condition of anonymity, countered that “the invitation to El-Katatni was “cleared” by the State Department and represented the highest-level contacts with the Brotherhood since 9/11,” the official told the news magazine. The official elaborated that this does not imply that Washington is “embracing the group”, but rather that, “we recognise that we have to listen to a wide range of voices”. The source added that the meeting was also a “subtle, smart way to express concern over a recent crackdown” on the outlawed group.

The aim of the visiting congressional group was to gauge reactions to recent constitutional amendments, but Hoyer’s brief discussion with El-Katatni apparently did not discuss anything related to the Brotherhood or the recent government crackdown on the group. Rather, the discussion — which took place in an open-door room adjacent to the embassy reception — explored the Brotherhood’s stance towards Hamas and the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, according to El-Katatni.

The Muslim Brotherhood member said he was surprised when parliament speaker Fathi Sorour asked him to take part in the parliamentary meeting with the congressional group, since the group’s MPs are usually excluded from any parliamentary discussions with foreign delegates. This time, however, “it was the delegation’s wish that a Brotherhood MP participate, and the government probably cannot say no to any US demands,” El-Katatni opined.

He insisted that agreeing to meet with the US delegation is not a shift in the Brotherhood’s policy, nor does it imply that the group is seeking the aid of foreign powers to solve its problems with the regime. El-Katatni explained that he accepted the invitation in his capacity “as an MP speaking in the name of the people, rather than the Brotherhood.” He further denied getting a green light from the group’s leadership beforehand: “I was just doing my job,” he snapped.

Leading Brotherhood member Essam El-Erian said the group is “open for dialogue with everyone”. But since meeting with a US official is a sensitive matter for the regime and some political powers — which never happens when other opposition figures hold secret meetings with US officials — certain measures are taken. “We insist that those meetings are held in public and in the presence of other members from the opposition and the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP),” El-Erian told Al-Ahram Weekly. “This was the case with El-Katatni.”

Both El-Erian and El-Katatni insisted that the Brotherhood would never consider seeking help from the US administration, which they believe has always shown double-standards in its foreign policies. “We believe that the US administration is hypocritical and wants to impose its own agenda on the world,” El-Erian said. “We definitely have no common interests with the US.”

Diaa Rashwan, an expert on political Islam and a researcher at the Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies, agrees that the Brotherhood cannot be seeking any form of US assistance. “They [the Muslim Brothers] just don’t need to,” Rashwan argued, even now in the face of a heavy government crackdown and freezing of their assets. “The current arrests are perhaps the least severe in 15 years, and the Brotherhood is definitely not at its weakest position,” he added.

Besides, “the US has never supported the Brotherhood in any of their issues or directed any serious criticism to the regime for cracking down on the banned group,” continued Rashwan. “And the Brotherhood knows that very well.” According to the expert, the Brothers may have accepted the invitation to “quell US fears that the group poses any threat to US interests in case it came to power.”

El-Erian, however, prefers this explanation: “We want to tell the entire world that Islam would guarantee peace and security, and that Muslims are not terrorists as many tend to believe.”

Speculations, however, abound on whether and why Washington is showing interest in the Brotherhood. For El-Erian and El-Katatni, the US may just be using the same pressure card that the Egyptian regime used during the 2005 parliamentary elections. At the time, the government used the Brotherhood’s success at the polls to scare the US into believing that democratisation would only damage its interests in the region. By dialoguing with the Brotherhood — which is widely perceived as the regime’s foremost rival — the group suggests that, “the US is giving signals to the regime that it can deal with alternative powers, thus pressuring it to succumb to more of its demands,” stated El-Erian.

According to Rashwan, there are many examples proving that the US does not mind dealing with Islamists should this serve its interest. For instance, the US considers Saudi Arabia an economic and military ally despite the fact that it follows the Wahhabi religious philosophy. “The US, however, would worry about dialoguing with Egypt’s Brotherhood branch for fear it would upset the regime — a strong US ally,” maintained Rashwan.

Many analysts also speculate that while the US fears that the Brotherhood’s rise to power would damage its interests in the region, it does not want to lose touch with a popular group that might come to power some day. “This is especially true, since the regime is weakening and losing popularity,” noted Rashwan. This might explain why Washington is oscillating in its policies towards the outlawed group. “Not that there is any real shift in US policies, though,” according to Rashwan. Rather, the US saw it necessary to “rediscover the group”.

According to Newsweek, “some counter-terror officials have been pressing for years for a full-scale US intelligence investigation of the Brotherhood, [arguing that] despite its public disavowal of violence, the group aims to create a worldwide Islamic state.” Other voices inside the US have been urging for a US dialogue with the group. This is not only because it “is likely to be the dominant force in Egyptian politics in the future”, but also because it is a “moderate non- violent Islamic movement.” According to an editorial published in the US daily Boston Globe, “engaging with the Brotherhood would open up new channels of communication with Islamist groups (and) signal to ruling regimes and opposition groups in the region that the United States is committed to promoting democracy — not just to supporting those who are friendly to US interests… and would not constitute a drastic departure for American foreign policy.”

And, the US department seems to be listening. According to new reports, the US and Europe have earmarked a huge budget for an intelligence investigation of the Muslim Brotherhood. This makes the Hoyer-Katatni meeting by no means an unplanned move.