The Wall Street Journal (Link) - Matt Bradley & Adam Entous (July 1, 2011)
The Obama administration is reaching out to Islamist movements whose political power is on the rise in the wake of Arab Spring uprisings across the Middle East and North Africa.
The tentative outreach effort to key religious political groups—the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and Ennahdha in Tunisia—reflects the administration’s realization that the spread of democracy in the region requires it to deal more directly with Islamist movements the U.S. had long kept at arm’s length.
Speaking to reporters during a visit Thursday to Budapest, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said the Obama administration is now seeking “limited contacts” with Muslim Brotherhood members ahead of parliamentary and presidential elections slated for later this year.
“It is in the interests of the United States to engage with all parties that are peaceful and committed to nonviolence,” Mrs. Clinton said. “We welcome, therefore, dialogue with those Muslim Brotherhood members who wish to talk with us.”
The Obama administration has been more aggressive in courting Ennahdha, Tunisia’s most-prominent Islamist party, hosting party leaders for a visit to Washington where they met with State Department officials and lawmakers, including Sen. John McCain, the 2008 Republican presidential candidate.
The Arab Spring revolts have loosed a democratic wave the U.S. both favors and fears. The Obama administration believes the spread of democracy will, over the long term, increase stability in a volatile region. But it also worries the popular backlash to decades of repression by Washington-backed dictators could usher to power Islamist groups hostile to U.S. interests.
The new overtures in Egypt and Tunisia reflect the administration’s concern that if it waits too long, it will miss a window of opportunity to build relationships, and gain leverage, with the next generation of regional leaders. Should it fail to do so now, administration officials say, the U.S. risks pushing moderate Islamists further from the West and closer to those such as Hamas in the Palestinian territories, Hezbollah in Lebanon and the anti-American regime in Iran.
“This was the only thing the U.S. could do,” Shadi Hamid, an Egypt analyst for the Washington-based Brookings Institution, said of the outreach to the Muslim Brotherhood.
A senior Obama administration official said Muslim Brotherhood members would also be eligible to participate along with other Egyptian parties, if they choose, in U.S. taxpayer-funded political-party training seminars. The official said the Brotherhood hasn’t so far shown much interest in taking part.
The U.S. decision to approach both Egyptian and Tunisian Islamists reflects the strong possibility that their parties will play a prominent role after elections are held in both countries. Secular parties appear to be struggling to organize themselves, even though secularists prompted the popular uprisings.
The Obama administration plans to treat parties in different countries in different ways, depending on the degree to which they are open to the West and disavow violence. The outreach to the Egyptians is far less enthusiastic than Washington’s wooing of the Tunisians.
Though Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood has long since renounced violence, it is a lightning rod of controversy on Capitol Hill and in Israel. Hamas is the Palestinian chapter of the Muslim Brotherhood, and Egyptian Ayman al Zawahiri, who became leader of al Qaeda after Osama bin Laden’s death in May, is a former Muslim Brotherhood member.
The group has a huge ideological and organizational footprint across the world, with chapters and affiliates in about 70 countries, some of which have a history of violence. The U.S. has had contacts with the group’s offshoots in Jordan, Indonesia and elsewhere.
Tunisia’s Islamists are going to pains to portray themselves as moderate and responsible international interlocutors. Since the fall of longtime dictator Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali in January, Ennahdha has sought contact with the West, vowed to respect women’s rights and promised not to impose religious law if it comes to power in elections.
In May, with help from the U.S. embassy in Tunis, Ennahdha party leaders quietly visited Washington for talks at the State Department and with congressional leaders, including Sen. McCain of Arizona, according to organizers. U.S. officials described the visit as an opportunity to build bridges with a moderate Islamist party that could serve as a model for groups in other countries in the region.
“Sen. McCain believes that Islamist parties are now a part of the political process in Tunisia and Egypt, and they should judged by their actions,” said the senator’s spokeswoman.
Hamadi Jebali, Ennahdha’s secretary-general, said in an interview that he assured U.S. officials and lawmakers that his party wouldn’t impose its religious beliefs on more-secular Tunisians. “We told the Americans that we are a civil, not a religious, party,” Mr. Jebali said. “Islamic parties are evolving, both in the Maghreb and elsewhere.”
According to secret diplomatic cables obtained by the organization WikiLeaks, U.S. diplomats met with Mr. Jebali at his home in the coastal city of Sousse in August 2006 soon after he was released from prison. Jailed for more than a decade by the Ben Ali regime for his alleged participation in what the government of Tunisia described as an “attempted overthrow” of the government and for other alleged crimes, Mr. Jebali told American diplomats at the time that the group had a “non-violent philosophy” and wanted to be “a part of the dialogue” in Tunisia.
In Egypt, before a street-level uprising toppled President Hosni Mubarak in February, U.S. contacts with the 83-year-old Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood were infrequent and limited to members of parliament affiliated with the group. The Egyptian government banned the organization in 1954 because of its suspected role in an assassination attempt on the Egyptian president, so Muslim Brotherhood parliamentary candidates had to run for parliament as independents.
U.S. officials say Mr. Mubarak, long a close American ally in the turbulent Middle East, had objected to previous U.S. efforts to reach out to the Muslim Brotherhood.
When President Barack Obama delivered a speech to the Muslim world in 2009, as many as 10 Brotherhood members were allowed to attend at the U.S. embassy’s invitation, said Mr. Hamid, the Brookings Institution analyst.
Muslim Brotherhood officials cautiously welcomed the American overture, but remained bitter about the long U.S. alliance with Mr. Mubarak, a despised figure amongst Islamists and other opposition groups.
“It’s nice that the Americans admit to recognizing the actual political map of Egypt and are dealing with it,” said Mohamed Al Biltagy, a prominent member of the group’s parliamentary bloc until Brotherhood members were swept from Egypt’s legislature last November in allegedly fraudulent elections. “When we sit on the dialogue table we will discuss why the [Egyptian] people hate the American administration. It’s because of the Americans’ support for oppressive regimes, on top of which was the regime of Hosni Mubarak.”
U.S. officials played down the implications of the administration’s decision to renew contacts with the Muslim Brotherhood, and said any exchanges would likely be held at a lower-level at first, reflecting concerns in Congress and the Pentagon about taking any steps that could boost the group’s political standing.
One official said the goal of engaging with Brotherhood contacts was to identify emerging leaders, learn about the party’s positions and to make clear what Washington expects “a pluralistic, democratic country should look like.”
Mrs. Clinton said U.S. diplomats who meet with Muslim Brotherhood members will “emphasize the importance of and support for democratic principles, and especially a commitment to nonviolence, respect for minority rights and the full inclusion of women in any democracy.” †
Corrections & Amplifications
Members of Tunisia’s Ennahdha party visited Washington in May for talks with State Department, congressional leaders and others. Display text accompanying this article in print incorrectly said the White House hosted them.