Not a promising dialogue
The United States and the Muslim Brotherhood will soon find out that talks between them depend on goodwill that is somewhat lacking, writes Khalil El-Anani*
When Hillary Clinton said that the US administration intends to hold exchanges with the Muslim Brotherhood, the announcement came as no surprise. The odd thing, if anything, was that it took the secretary of state so long to make this statement. Washington could have started talking to the Muslim Brotherhood the moment Hosni Mubarak left office, not only because of the likelihood that the Muslim Brotherhood would be a major player in the post-25 January phase, but because the obstacle that prevented the dialogue from taking place so far -- namely, the Mubarak regime -- was gone.
What's interesting about Clinton's announcement is not its content, but the fact that she was the one who made it. This was the first time such a high-ranking US official broached the subject, a sign that the Americans now view the Muslim Brotherhood as more of a political power than a security threat.
For the past three decades, since Anwar El-Sadat was assassinated in 1981, the Muslim Brotherhood dossier has been handled by the US National Security Council. The latter viewed the Brotherhood as just another extremist group, not that much different, say, from the Islamic Jihad, and therefore not a worthy interlocutor. After the 25 January Revolution, it seems that the Muslim Brotherhood dossier has moved from the National Security Council to the State Department and the White House.
In my opinion, Clinton was not just sending a signal to the Muslim Brotherhood, but to all those Americans who still reject any dialogue with the Islamists. The secretary was trying to find out how the conservative rightwing and the Israeli lobby in America would react to a prospective dialogue with the Muslim Brotherhood.
Some US officials still oppose the normalisation of ties between Washington and the Muslim Brotherhood, not just because of the Muslim Brotherhood's religious positions, but also because of its policies towards Israel and links with Hamas.
There are two currents within the US, both holding opposing views on how to handle the Muslim Brotherhood. First, you have the pragmatists in the US State Department and the White House who believe in dialogue with the Muslim Brotherhood, not because they like it but because ignoring it could prove too risky for US interests. Summing up the pragmatic point of view, State Department spokesman Mark Toner recently said that talking to the Muslim Brotherhood would be in the best interest of the US.
Then you have the hardliners who oppose any communication between Washington and the Muslim Brotherhood and have no stomach for recognising the nuances of the Muslim Brotherhood's programme and its religious and political intentions. For them, to talk with the Muslim Brotherhood is to give in to extremists. Numerous members of Congress, CIA officials, and Zionist- affiliated research centres subscribe to this view.
This explains the reluctance with which the Americans approached the question of talking to the Muslim Brotherhood. It took Clinton six whole months, after the 25 January Revolution, to make her statement. During that time, Washington was waiting to see how powerful the Muslim Brotherhood was going to be in Egypt's new political landscape, and how likely it was to stay a significant player in the future. Washington, by the way, had no qualms talking to the liberals, the seculars, and assorted youth activists from day one.
The fact that the Muslim Brotherhood is no longer a legally banned group but one that has a registered political party must have figured prominently in US thinking. Once the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) was formed, the Americans could no longer have an excuse for not talking to the Muslim Brotherhood.
Interestingly enough, Clinton's announcement seems to have thrown the Muslim Brotherhood out of kilter. While FJP officials seemed pleased with the US call for dialogue, the Guidance Office sounded a bit disinterested and even eager to dampen the FJP's enthusiasm.
On the whole, Muslim Brotherhood officials -- who deny having had any official talks with the US in the past few years -- maintain that any talks with the Americans be based on mutual respect and on Washington's non-interference in Egyptian affairs.
Within the Muslim Brotherhood, differences on how to react to the Americans persist. The conservatives believe that the Muslim Brotherhood must not enter into dialogue with Washington before the latter changes its policy on such matters as the Palestinian issue, Hamas, and Sudan. Rashad El-Bayoumi, Mahmoud Ezzat and Mahmoud Hussein, as well as other members of the Guidance Council, seem to adhere to this position.
Alternatively, FJP pragmatists welcome dialogue with the US and conceive of some room for cooperation and understanding. FJP Secretary General Mohamed Saad Al-Katatni, who conferred with a visiting US congressional delegation in 2006, is known to be in support of dialogue.
Talking to the Americans may prove problematic for the Muslim Brotherhood, which would have to reconcile its rhetoric with the realities of US policy in the Middle East. It may not be easy for Muslim Brotherhood leaders to convince their rank and file that dialogue with the Americans is a good idea.
Much of the political capital of the Muslim Brotherhood depends on its opposition to US policies in the region. Often, the Muslim Brotherhood lumps Tel Aviv and Washington together, depicting both as paragons of Western imperialism and hegemony.
In all likelihood, the dialogue between the Muslim Brotherhood and Washington will be fraught with scepticism and ultimately short-lived. The considerable goodwill needed to reconcile their positions, both sides will soon find out, is in short supply.
* The writer is a researcher at School of Government and International Affairs, Durham University.