In a reversal of a five-year-old U.S. policy banning contact with the Muslim Brotherhood organization in Egypt, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has ordered American diplomats to resume contact with the Islamist group. Clinton made the following statement at a news conference in Budapest:
We believe, given the changing political landscape in Egypt, that it is in the interests of the United States to engage with all parties that are peaceful, and committed to non-violence, that intend to compete for the parliament and the presidency.
The resumption of formal contacts is a symbolic victory for the Brotherhood. It is also a signal to the Egyptian military the United States has no problem with the Brotherhood’s bid for more influence in the country, paving the way for a condominium between the army and the influential Islamist party.
While it can be argued the United States needs to be informed about the positions of all the major players in a key country such as Egypt, that could have been taken care of by private talks. Instead, the Obama administration has taken a critical step towards the acceptance of a militant anti-Western group as part of a future government of the most populous Arab nation.
The United States hopes democracy will change Egypt for the better and dealing with the Islamist party is just part of the price America must pay for this development. But the idea an ideology-driven group like the Brotherhood will allow itself to be transformed into a democratic partner for non-Islamist Egyptians as well as the United States is absurd. Rather than the Arab Spring and democracy changing the Muslim Brotherhood, it will be the Brotherhood that seeks to exploit Egyptian democracy and make it impossible for non-Islamists to thwart their rise to power, especially as a new round of protests against military rule seem to have begun. It also presages increasing tension with Israel.
The recognition of the Brotherhood also calls into question the administration’s continued adherence to a policy of no recognition for the group’s Palestinian ally: Hamas. Though Clinton sought to downplay the significance of the move, it isn’t much of a leap from talks with the Muslim Brotherhood to recognition of a Fatah-Hamas Palestinian coalition. It is no harder to justify recognition of Hamas as merely bowing to the realities of Palestinian politics than it is for her to make the same argument for dealing with the Brotherhood. All it takes is a mindset that no longer thinks of Islamist extremists as enemies of the West and Israel.