CAIRO – So what is the significance of the announcement Thursday that the Obama administration is opening the door for dialogue with Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood?
First of all, it’s a pragmatic recognition of the obvious, that the Muslim Brotherhood is likely by just about all accounts to take the largest number of seats in the parliamentary elections expected for September.
And secondly, it’s a sign that the Obama administration may be shifting its approach to Islamist organizations, backing away from a reflexive fear of what a government controlled by Islamists would mean for the U.S. and Israel. These organizations have deep popular support in many Arab countries and they will inevitably play a bigger role as those countries lean toward democracy. So, the argument goes, better to engage with them now and try to guide them toward respect for diversity of opinions and democratic process.
Brookings Institute senior fellow Shadi Hamid has been right on the money on this since the first days of the January 25 revolution in Egypt. An expert on Islamist movements in the Middle East, he has insisted all along that the toppling of Hosni Mubarak will present an opportunity for the United States to redefine its relationship with Islamist groups, particularly the Muslim Brotherhood. It will allow Washington to recognize that these groups have wide democratic support, and as the Arab world turns to democracy, that will have to be recognized.
So the question will be how to pull groups like the Muslim Brotherhood more toward the center. In Egypt, that process is getting underway. The Brotherhood has modified some of its policies and increasingly seems to care more about politics than religion as the elections approach. (The betting is about 50/50 that they will be delayed beyond September.)
A spokesman for the Brotherhood issued a terse statement saying that the organization, which dates back to 1929 and was officially outlawed as a political party by Egypt in the 1950s, would accept the invitation for dialogue with the U.S.
The Brotherhood may be finding an open door in Washington, but in Tahrir Square they seem to be finding a cold shoulder these days. The other parties in the wide coalition that came together to topple Mubarak say the Brotherhood has become brazenly political and some argue they are undercutting the goals of the revolution.
Tariq El Khouly, a spokesman for the April 6 Movement, was in Tahrir Square for the demonstrations on Friday that drew several thousand protesters back to the square. The Muslim Brotherhood was noticeably absent, hanging no banners and offering none of its leaders to speak on the stage.
"They aren't with the people," he said. "They are starting to do what all political groups do, which is to say what the people want to hear to get elected. But the truth is we have a lot more work to do in this revolution to be sure the corrupt and brutal institutions of the police and government are changed and reformed. ... A lot of us feel the Brothers no longer have any interest in this."