During a visit to Cairo last month, when I met with several leaders and activists of the Muslim Brotherhood, I told them—only somewhat jokingly—that they owe the Salafists a big favor. The specter of increased Salafist influence in Egypt has made U.S. officials, long wary of the Brotherhood, suddenly less hostile. Now they view it as a counterweight to more conservative strains of Islamism. Brotherhood leaders have met with U.S. ambassador Anne Patterson and Deputy Secretary of State William Burns, among other officials, in recent weeks. And when Americans working for pro-democracy NGOs were detained in Egypt in February, Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham conferred with Muslim Brotherhood leaders, who assured the senators that they wanted to change the laws and allow NGOs to operate freely.
A delegation from the Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) is in the United States this week to explain the party’s views and attempt to counter lingering skepticism about its commitment to moderation. While the group’s big electoral gains (it won 47 percent of the seats in Egypt’s parliamentary elections) confer immediate legitimacy as a political force, American audiences remain unclear about the Brotherhood’s position on sensitive issues. Unfortunately, their recent performances in the American media are not helping. For example, Sondos Asem, editor of Ikhwanweb.com, the Brotherhood’s official English-language website, was asked yesterday on CNN about Egypt’s peace treaty with Israel. She said that the FJP remains committed to the treaty—“unless there is a popular will to change that.” You can view the video here:
After the CNN interview, three FJP members visited the Council on Foreign Relations for a not-for-attribution meeting, where their answers continued to be vague. Afterward, I advised them to sharpen their responses to questions about their policy views, whether on the peace treaty with Israel, the rights of women and religious minorities, openness to international NGOs, or other issues, if they hope to improve their credibility with Americans.
The Brotherhood has also attracted controversy—both within and outside its ranks—over its participation in Egypt’s presidential election. The group long maintained that it would not field a presidential candidate. But a few days ago, it nominated Khairat al-Shater, a longtime Brotherhood leader, for the race. The presidential contest poses a significant challenge to the FJP’s political leadership. Contesting, and losing, the election would undoubtedly call into question its political supremacy. As a candidate, Shater faces real competition on one side from secularist Amr Moussa, the well-known former head of the Arab League, and on the other from Salafist leader Hazem Salah Abu Ismail, who lately has been surging in the polls. Who holds the presidency could in fact matter quite a bit: according to the interim constitution issued by the military, the president enjoys wide powers, including the right to form the cabinet.
The Brotherhood thus has a lot at stake, which is why it ultimately gambled that it could not avoid advancing its own candidate. Nonetheless, the decision to nominate Shater was far from unanimous. Many party members wanted to honor the earlier pledge to stay out of the race, with some urging support for Abdel Moneim Abul-Fotouh, a former Brotherhood leader expelled from the group for announcing his presidential candidacy last year. The issue of Fotouh’s candidacy is especially awkward since the Brotherhood kicked him out for something that the party itself is now doing.
However the presidential race evolves, the Muslim Brotherhood and the FJP will continue to play a central role in shaping the post-Mubarak era. The Brotherhood will therefore be an important interlocutor for the United States and others concerned about Egypt’s future. The dialogue that has opened between the Brotherhood and the United States is positive and necessary. But U.S. officials, commentators, and activists are right to judge the group on its actions, not by its moderate and fuzzy rhetoric on CNN and elsewhere.