WASHINGTON – Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Thursday that the US would have contacts with the Muslim Brotherhood as part of America’s dialogue with the parties competing in the upcoming Egyptian elections.
“We believe, given the changing political landscape in Egypt, that it is in the interests of the United States to engage with all parties that are peaceful and committed to nonviolence that intend to compete for the parliament and the presidency,” Clinton said during a press conference on a trip to Hungary. “And we welcome, therefore, dialogue with those Muslim Brotherhood members who wish to talk with us.”
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She described the policy as “continuing the approach of limited contacts with the Muslim Brotherhood that has existed on and off for about five or six years.”
In those contacts, the US would “emphasize the importance of and support for democratic principles, and especially a commitment to nonviolence, respect for minority rights, and the full inclusion of women in any democracy,” she said.
The idea of reaching out to the Muslim Brotherhood has been a controversial issue ever since the regime of Hosni Mubarak was swept aside in January and formerly illegal groups such as the Brotherhood indicated they would compete in the new parliamentary elections, now scheduled for September.
Many members of Congress have criticized any outreach by US officials to the Muslim Brotherhood, and threatened to cut off American aid should the party enter government. Israeli officials have also expressed concern about any American openness to talking with the organization, of which Hamas is an off-shoot.
White House official Danielle Borrin, who liaises with the Jewish community, defended the approach outlined by Clinton Thursday in an e-mail forwarded to The Jerusalem Post.
“It’s important to remember that the Muslim Brotherhood is neither a designated Foreign Terrorist Organization nor designated under various counter-terrorism executive orders or proclamations,” the email said. “There is no legal bar for such meetings. The State Department is continuing the approach of limited contact with the Muslim Brotherhood that has existed since 2006.”
The e-mail continued that “the political landscape in Egypt is continuing to change, and it is in our interests to engage with all of the parties that are competing for parliament or the presidency.”
Borrin did not respond to a request from the Post seeking confirmation of her email.
A former US State Department official, however, said that the approach outlined by Clinton is more of an evolution of the policy under the George W. Bush administration.
“The Muslim Brotherhood was banned as an organization under Egyptian law, and we did not meet with any illegal parties,” said Rob Danin, who in 2006 served as deputy assistant secretary of state for Near East affairs, which included oversight of policy toward Egypt. “We did have contact with members of parliament that were affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood.”
He continued, “It’s not necessarily a new policy, but it’s a widening of the formal aperture regarding who we will now talk to. Before the aperture was much narrower.”
Danin said the previous US approach was in keeping with the Egyptian government’s own posture at that time, and with Egypt itself changing so that the Brotherhood is no longer outlawed, it made sense for Clinton to bring US policy in line with that new circumstance.
He said direct contacts between the United States and the Brotherhood would allow for the clearest communication of what the US wants to see the group do and what actions could cost Egypt in terms of US financial support.
Several members of Congress have already warned that US funds for Egypt, which are well over $1 billion in annual assistance, could be jeopardized by any involvement of the Muslim Brotherhood in government, and urged Obama administration officials to have nothing to do with the group.
“Given its radical and violent ideology it is deeply disturbing that the Muslim Brotherhood would be recognized in any way as a legitimate political entity,” Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, the Florida Republican who heads the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said earlier this month.
“United States policy must reflect this reality, and the administration must not engage the Muslim Brotherhood, or allow direct or indirect US assistance to benefit that organization.”
Ohio Republican Steve Chabot, who is the chairman of the HFAC’s Middle East subcommittee, argued for conditioning any aid to Egypt on whether the Brotherhood is in the government.
“I think we ought to be very clear that the Muslim Brotherhood should not be part of a future government in Egypt,” he said in an interview with the Post this spring.