U.S. to resume formal Muslim Brotherhood contacts, official says

June 30, 2011

(The skyline of Washington DCl, May 22, 2009/Larry Downing)

The United States has decided to resume formal contacts with the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, a senior U.S. official said, 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 spokeon Wednesday 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.

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