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Thursday, June 30, 2011

US to engage with Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood

From Reuters:
The United States has decided to resume formal contacts with the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, a senior U.S. 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 U.S. 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."

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, U.S. 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 U.S. 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 U.S. 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 February 11 downfall of former President Hosni Mubarak.

...Elliott Abrams, a deputy national security adviser handling Middle East affairs under former President George W. Bush, said he favored dropping the ban on formal contacts -- but approaching any actual dealings with great caution.

Abrams said positions espoused by some Brotherhood members -- such as favoring religious tests for public office, questioning the rights of women and limiting freedom of religion or speech -- were "anathema" to the United States.

The group says it wants a civil state based on Islamic principles, but talk by some members of an "Islamic state" or "Islamic government" have raised concerns that their goal is a state where full Islamic sharia law is implemented. The group says such comments have been taken out of context.

"It's critical ... that we make it very, very clear to Egyptians, if we are going to do a meeting, that we are no less opposed to the ideas they represent," Abrams said, noting that there are splits among Brotherhood members.

"We have to think about whether we can use meetings to deepen those splits and to help, quietly, those who are trying to moderate the positions of the Brotherhood," he added, saying the United States should choose its interlocutors with care and that the talks need not be conducted by the U.S. ambassador.

The U.S. official who declined to be identified said U.S. diplomats "will continue to emphasize the importance of support for democratic principles and a commitment to nonviolence, and respect for minority and women's rights in conversations with all groups, including the Muslim Brotherhood."
This is far from a simple question, and Elliott Abrams' caveats are important.

From reading Wikileaks memos, I have much more respect for the State Department than I had before. They generate a lot of good analysis, and the only way for their analysis to be accurate is if they meet with relevant people. Meeting with MB leaders does not necessarily mean approving of their philosophy, and if it is done right, it can help matters in Egypt.

It all depends on having clear ground rules ahead of time and having diplomats who are experienced enough to know when they are being played. The current US ambassador to Syria has been shown to be an incompetent idiot that Assad's regime has fooled and manipulated to great advantage. But that does not have to be the case when you have diplomats who know what they are doing.

I can see how it can even benefit Israel to have back channels to talk to the MB, in matters such as Gilad Shalit or to get subtle messages to Hamas.

If the State Department is careful on how to engage with the MB, and checks the information being told to its diplomats with other sources, this can be valuable. A blanket "don't talk" policy is not always wise.

(h/t O, Joel)