The United States has decided to resume formal contacts with the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, a senior US official said on Wednesday, in a step that reflects the Islamist group's growing political weight but that is almost certain to upset Israel and its US backers.
"The political landscape in Egypt has changed, and is changing," said the senior official, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "It is in our interests to engage with all of the parties that are competing for parliament or the presidency."
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The official sought to portray the shift as a subtle evolution rather than a dramatic change in Washington's stance toward the Brotherhood, a group founded in 1928 that seeks to promote its conservative vision of Islam in society.
Under the previous policy, US diplomats were allowed to deal with Brotherhood members of parliament who had won seats as independents – a diplomatic fiction that allowed them to keep lines of communication open.
Where US diplomats previously dealt only with group members in their role as parliamentarians, a policy the official said had been in place since 2006, they will now deal directly with low-level Brotherhood party officials.
There is no US legal prohibition against dealing with the Muslim Brotherhood itself, which long ago renounced violence as a means to achieve political change in Egypt and which is not regarded by Washington as a foreign terrorist organization.
But other sympathetic groups, such as Hamas, which identifies the Brotherhood as its spiritual guide, have not disavowed violence against the state of Israel.
The result has been a dilemma for the Obama administration. Former officials and analysts said it has little choice but to engage the Brotherhood directly, given its political prominence after the Feb. 11 downfall of former President Hosni Mubarak.
Stirring up demons
US President Barack Obama will surely face criticism for engaging with the Brotherhood, even tentatively.
Howard Kohr, executive director of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, made clear the pro-Israel group's deep skepticism about the group in a speech last month.
"While we all hope that Egypt emerges from its current political transition with a functioning, Western-oriented democracy, the fact is the best-organized political force in Egypt today is the Muslim Brotherhood – which does not recognize Israel," Kohr said.
Former US diplomats said the United States had to engage with the Brotherhood given its influence in Egypt.
"We cannot have a free and fair election and democracy unless we are going to be willing to talk to all the people that are a part of that democracy," said Edward Walker, a former US ambassador to Egypt and Israel who now teaches at Hamilton College.
"It's going to stir up demons," he added. "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."
Egypt's parliamentary elections are scheduled for September and its military rulers have promised to hold a presidential vote by the end of the year.
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