By Paul Richter and Peter Nicholas
Los Angeles Times
WASHINGTON–The Obama administration said Monday for the first time that it supports a role for groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood, a banned Islamist organization, in a reformed Egyptian government.
The organization must reject violence and recognize democratic goals if the U.S. is to be comfortable with it taking part in the government, the White House said. But by even setting conditions for the involvement of such “non-secular” groups, the administration took a surprise step in the midst of the crisis enveloping Egypt for the past week.
The statement was an acknowledgment that any popularly accepted new government would probably include groups that are not considered friendly to U.S. interests, and a signal that the White House is prepared for that probability after 30 years of reliable relations with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.
Monday’s statement was a “pretty clear sign that the U.S. isn’t going to advocate a narrow form of pluralism, but a broad one,” said Robert Malley, a Middle East peace negotiator in the Clinton administration. U.S. officials have previously pressed for broader participation in Egypt’s government.
The Bush administration pushed Mubarak for democratic reforms, but a statement in 2005 by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice did not specifically address a role for Islamists.
“This is different,” said Malley, now with the International Crisis Group. “It has a real political edge and political
meaning.”White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said a reformed government “has to include a whole host of important non-secular actors that give Egypt a strong chance to continue to be (a) stable and reliable partner.”
Gibbs said the U.S. government has had no contact with the Muslim Brotherhood because of questions over its commitment to the rule of law, democracy and nonviolence. But the Brotherhood is not listed on U.S. terrorism lists, as are the Hamas and Hezbollah organizations.
His remarks came after a White House meeting at which administration officials briefed outside Middle East experts, leaving some of the participants with the impression that the administration was not counting on Mubarak to remain in power.
The Muslim Brotherhood is the largest and best-organized Egyptian opposition group, with an estimated 600,000 members, many of them educated, middle-class men. It has disavowed terrorism and violence, but its inclusion in any government would likely be deeply controversial among U.S. allies, especially in Israel, because it advocates tearing up Egypt’s peace treaty with the Jewish state.
Its members run for elective office as independents. It won 20 percent of the seats in parliament in 2005. But in elections in November, Brotherhood members didn’t win a single seat in balloting that was tainted by allegations of fraud.
In addition to its political efforts, the Muslim Brotherhood runs social and economic programs that help fill the gaps in Egypt’s public services. It rejects the possibility of a woman or a Christian being president of Egypt, and would press for stricter adherence to Islamic codes.
U.S. conservatives such as former House Speaker Newt Gingrich have warned about its rise, and many draw comparisons to the 1979 Islamic revolution in Iran. But others contend that fears of the Brotherhood, which has been suppressed for decades by the Egyptian government, are overstated.