Brothers deny "compromising" dialogue
Top Muslim Brotherhood figures denied published reports that the group wants to dialogue with the US. Omayma Abdel-Latif reports
Members of the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood dismissed claims that the group plans on meeting US officials in Doha, Qatar as "an outright lie". The allegations were proffered by writer Ma'moun Fendi in the London-based Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper on 24 November.
According to Fendi, an Egyptian American who has courted controversy for what his critics call excessively pro- American views, the Muslim Brotherhood and the Americans were set to conduct a political dialogue on the sidelines of the group's upcoming annual convention of its international chapters, which Fendi claimed would be taking place in Qatar.
Ma'moun El-Hodeibi, the group's supreme guide, told Al-Ahram Weekly that Fendi's claims were mere "fabrications -- we don't conduct political dialogues with foreign states or authorities because we are not the state. We can only have a dialogue with the Egyptian state," El-Hodeibi said.
Fendi's article, entitled "The dialogue between the Brotherhood and the Americans in Qatar", provided no substantial facts about the alleged meeting, and consisted mainly of the writer's ruminations as to what the dialogue would represent. Fendi questioned whether it was part of US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's "war of ideas" rubric: "Will the Muslim Brotherhood be seen as the only movement capable of combating the kind of Islam embraced by Al- Qa'eda? Or is this dialogue part of a project attempting to explore alternative leadership... in countries where the Brotherhood enjoys grassroots support?"
According to El-Hodeibi, the meeting of the group's international body "will not take place in Qatar in the first place". Asked to elaborate on the meeting's timing and locale, El-Hodeibi would only say that such meetings take place "when the circumstances are right". The group also released a statement categorically denying that there was any contact -- direct or indirect -- with officials from the US administration. "We regret that a political writer would stoop that low, and make false allegations against the group," the statement said.
Fendi's detractors call him a self- hating Arab who has attempted to curry favour with the anti-Arab agenda of the US's neo-conservative cabal by writing favourably about the war on Iraq. Fendi contributes weekly columns to both Asharq Al-Awsat and Al-Ahram.
In Fendi's view, the idea of a US- Brotherhood dialogue fits in with the outlawed group's new, more pragmatic approach to its political activities. "The Brotherhood presents itself as both the moderate alternative to 'extremist' Islam and a modern alternative to the government, for the group has coached a young cadre of professionals who are able to deal with Western interests in the Middle East," he wrote.
El-Hodeibi was adamant about the Brotherhood's refusal to conduct dialogues with foreign states or bodies "on political matters". He acknowledged that the group's headquarters had hosted foreign diplomats in the past, but that these meetings only consisted of the Brotherhood explaining its "point of view on different issues like women's and minority rights. We don't delve into the Egyptian political situation or anything that has to do with the government," he said.
The outlawed group found itself at the centre of controversy last March after newspapers revealed that a meeting had taken place between senior members -- including MP Mohamed Mursi, journalist Mohamed Abdel-Qudous and Doctors Syndicate Secretary-General Essam El-Erian -- and diplomats from Britain, Sweden, Switzerland and Canada. Organised by controversial sociologist Saadeddin Ibrahim, the meeting took place at the Swiss Club in Cairo. Pro- government observers said the meeting made clear that the group was vying for power by presenting itself as the alternative to the regime -- a charge the Brotherhood vehemently denies. El- Erian called this viewpoint "simplistic and far-fetched", arguing that the Brotherhood did not represent an alternative to either the government or extremists.
The allegations regarding a Brotherhood-US dialogue have appeared in the midst of a complex political climate coloured by the US's openly stated goals for regional transformation. As such, the Brotherhood has been keen to distance itself from any US-initiated political reform process. The group has been championing an anti-American line harshly critical of Washington's rhetorical plans to spread democracy in the Middle East; according to El-Erian, the Brotherhood also cut off all contact with American officials long ago. El- Erian said that ever since the group moved its headquarters to Al-Roda after the authorities shut down its downtown offices in 1995, there has not been a single official American visit.
US Embassy Spokesman Philip Frayne told the Weekly that, he "does not know anything about this Qatar meeting." In general, Frayne said, embassy staffers meet up with Egyptian politicians of all stripes, including the Muslim Brotherhood, "in order to stay in touch with what is going on in society". According to Frayne, however, "We don't do this in a secretive way, but it is common knowledge. There have been contacts in the past with the Muslim Brotherhood, just like any other political group, but I cannot confirm that there have been any recent meetings with group members."
El-Erian said that, as a matter of principle, the group does not shun the idea of dialogue. Within the current climate, however, it is not feasible to meet -- at any level -- with any member of the current American administration. "There is no nationalist movement that is willing to sit with the Americans and discuss the country's political situation," El-Erian said. "This would automatically discredit the movement in the public eye, and the Brotherhood has no intention whatsoever of compromising its credibility."