U.S. engages Muslim Brotherhood despite Rice

U.S. engages Muslim Brotherhood despite Rice

The United States has resumed contacts with Egypt”s Muslim Brotherhood despite Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice”s 2005 commitment not to “engage” with the banned group — a move that could strain relations with President Hosni Mubarak”s government.

U.S. Embassy officials said they are acting in conformity with a worldwide policy of dealing with political parties that are represented in their national parliaments. Muslim Brotherhood members can only run for Egypt”s parliament as independents, and U.S. officials say they have met them only in that capacity.”Our rare contacts with the nominally independent members of parliament have occurred only in the full light of day, with many other Egyptians present, including members from the ruling National Democratic Party,” said Francis J. Ricciardone, the U.S. ambassador to Egypt.

Asked whether the dealings were approved by Miss Rice, who ruled out such contacts in June 2005, Mr. Ricciardone said: “Of course, we report fully to Washington on these contacts.”

An Egyptian official said that, even though the Muslim Brotherhood is illegal, foreign diplomats may meet with parliamentarians, regardless of their affiliation.

Officially, those politicians represent their constituents, not the Muslim Brotherhood, he said.

The government does not have a blanket policy for contacts between members of parliament from the Muslim Brotherhood and foreign diplomats, the official said.

The Muslim Brotherhood is not on the U.S. list of foreign terrorist organizations, which includes Palestinian Hamas and Lebanon”s Hezbollah — both represented in their respective parliaments.

But Mr. Mubarak”s government insists the Muslim Brotherhood, part of an international Sunni Islamist movement founded in 1928, represents a terrorist threat to the state and its citizens. Members of the group have been brought before military courts — a move ruled illegal by civilian courts.

“Any state can most effectively combat wrong ideas, and even dangerously wrong and offensive ideas — provided such ideas are advanced through lawful, nonviolent activities — through means other than arrest, trial and imprisonment,” Mr. Ricciardone said.

Regular contacts between U.S. Embassy officials and the Muslim Brotherhood date back to the rule of President Anwar Sadat during the 1970s. Although the group has been illegal since 1954, it was tolerated by various governments until Mr. Mubarak took power.

Mr. Ricciardone recalled that, as a low-level embassy official in the late 1980s, he made “occasional visits” to the group”s headquarters in downtown Cairo. Contacts were discontinued after September 11, 2001, when the group “indicated to us that they had no desire to continue such contacts,” he said.

In June 2005, Miss Rice said in Cairo that the United States “won”t” engage with the Muslim Brotherhood, but contacts resumed again last year.


“Any such contacts do not imply American endorsement of the views of the individual parliamentarians or their political affiliates,” said Mr. Ricciardone, a career diplomat of nearly 30 years.

Mohamed Habib, first deputy leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, said the group meets with U.S. Embassy officials only during visits to Egypt by members of Congress. In order for the group to meet with representatives of the executive branch, it needs permission from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, he said.

“Parliamentarians can meet with senators,” Mr. Habib said in an interview. “But we have no contacts, nor do we want to have contacts, with the administration. We”d like many things to change before that can happen.”

He referred to the administration”s policies in the Middle East and toward Muslims in general, citing the war in Iraq and U.S. support for Arab authoritarian regimes, including those of Mr. Mubarak and Saudi King Abdullah.

At the top of his list of complaints, however, is the Palestinian issue. The Muslim Brotherhood”s ideology is similar to that of Hamas, though it denounces violence as a means of achieving political goals.