(photo credit: Associated Press)
WASHINGTON – The Obama administration is sending mixed messages on its position toward the Muslim Brotherhood and its assessments of the group’s goals, as it struggles to articulate a policy on the largest and most organized Egyptian opposition group.
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“It is hard, at this point, to point to a specific agenda of the Muslim Brotherhood as a group,” US Director of National Intelligence James Clapper told the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence Wednesday, when asked about its stance on Iran, weapons smuggling by Hamas and Egypt’s peace treaty with Israel.
Pressed on the last point, Clapper finally said, “They are not in favor of the treaty.”
His comments comes after criticism he received last week for asserting that the organization is “largely secular.”
On Wednesday he said he had been misunderstood and that he was trying to say that the group tries to work within the framework of a secular government.
At the same time, CIA Director Leon Panetta and FBI Director Robert Mueller, who appeared alongside Clapper at Wednesday’s hearing, described the group in more ominous tones.
“Within the Muslim Brotherhood, there are extremist elements that we have to pay attention to,” Panetta said. “We have to watch very carefully to make sure that they are not able to exert their influence on the direction of governments in that region.”
Mueller said that some members in the Muslim Brotherhood have “supported terrorism.”
Since the unrest that unseated Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak hit the country, the US has stated that its policy is not to speak to members of the Islamist organization, of which the US terror-designated Hamas is an offshoot, at the same time that it calls for nonsecular groups to be included in conversations about a new, fully representative government.
US President Barack Obama himself, speaking right after Mubarak abdicated last Friday, stressed that “this transition must bring all of Egypt’s voices to the table.”
“The administration has made contradictory and at times patently incorrect statements about the group, leading to confusion about how the administration sees the group and to speculation that the administration does not have a position or a unified position on how it sees the group,” said Matthew Levitt, director of the Stein Program on Counterterrorism and Intelligence at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
“I think they’ve been caught off guard,” he said of the administration. “It suggests that they have not given enough thought to the issue.”
Daniel Byman, a counterterrorism expert at the Brookings Institution’s Saban Center for Middle East Policy, suggested that the Muslim Brotherhood itself had been caught off guard by the rapid removal of the repressive regime that had dominated its members’ lives for decades. That has meant the group has yet to adapt to the new political reality and formulate its goals.
Now that it doesn’t have to focus exclusively on survival and identifying pressure points in the regime, Byman said, “I don’t know if it knows what it wants.”
The dramatic change in Egypt – as well as the fact that the Brotherhood has several points of power and leading figures – has made for mixed signals out of the diverse group, Byman noted, adding that most of the messages that have come out have been “saying the right things.”
Certain members have expressed a willingness to abide by the peace treaty with Israel, a commitment to nonviolence and democratic governance and an intention not to attempt to run Egypt, though whether the organization as a whole takes these positions or will adhere to them is far from certain.
That uncertainty leaves the Obama administration in a difficult position, according to Byman, as it doesn’t want to encourage the political participation of a group it mistrusts but also doesn’t want to create an enemy and make the situation for US interests worse.
While such ambivalence can lead to bad outcomes on both sides, he also maintained, “That they [US officials] disagree is intellectually healthy. There’ll be debate, people will question each others’ assumptions.”
Levitt said the administration was trying to minimize the risk that it would alienate a large part of the Egyptian electorate – support for the Muslim Brotherhood is estimated at between 15 and 30 percent – by boldly characterizing or seeking to exclude them from the electoral process.
But Levitt advised that rather than speak about the Muslim Brotherhood
specifically, the Obama administration should draw lines that all groups
need to cross to participate in a democratic process.
“It’s clear that there needs to be much more centralized thinking about
this group and what do we want or need for this group to be positive
contributors,” he said