Mohamed Elmenshawy Headshot

Time to Talk to Egypt's Islamists

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EGYPT CONSTITUTION
AP

As the Arab world is getting ready to listen once again to a major speech by the U.S. President Barack Obama, many Egyptians wonder about how the outcomes of the political change will be received outside of the country, and especially from the U.S.

The mood amongst Egyptians was one of elation but also serious introspection. In my discussions with representatives of major political forces in Egypt, the question at the top of everyone's mind was, "Will the United States and the West accept and deal with any victorious forces of parliamentary elections in September?"

Before January 2011, the concept of a political "right wing" was a relatively unfamiliar concept to Egypt and the Arab world. However, with the sweeping revolution and political changes that essentially wiped out the political structure of Egypt, the emergence of a new right wing political player is evident -- political forces with Islamic orientation.

The Islamic centrist party known as Al-Wasat was recently granted the license necessary for the exercise of political action. The largest organized political force in Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood, which was banned during the reign of Hosni Mubarak, has expressed interest in establishing a new political party, "Justice and Freedom," and has made it apparent that they would like to be key players in the new government of Egypt. In the same ground, Egypt is witnessing a growing influence from Salafi groups.

Though Egypt's Islamic forces have severe friction among them, they share commonalities that allow for cohesion in the political sphere. All these groups seek the same goal of restoring the glory of Islam and establishing a state built around the principles of sharia law. It is my belief that Islamic political forces represents the most conservative side of Egypt, therefore could be characterized in this context as Egypt's "right wing."

Right wing groups are spread all over the world, in countries like France, Austria and many others; even America's most significant ally, Israel, is currently under a right wing government, led by Likud in coalition with the several right wing parties such as Yisraek Beiteinu, headed by Foreign Minister Avigador Lieberman.

In fact, the United States itself has a very prominent right wing movement that most recently gained momentum during the 2010 mid term election with the establishment of the Tea Party movement.

Although the Muslim Brotherhood does not have a plan to have a militia arm, and publicly denounces usage of violence to reach their political goals, and assured respect of all international obligation of Egypt including its peace treaty with Israel, many American pundits and officials have expressed serious concern, and in some cases fear, over a scenario where the Muslim Brotherhood is an active participant in Egyptian politics.

Recognition of the Egypt's and Arab's right wing right to exist is still prisoner of the distorted view of Islamists that dominates the American collective memory. The Iranian experience of revolution which resulted in radical Islamic regime still haunts decision-makers in Washington and controls the prism though which the phenomenon of the Egyptian revolution and the role of the Islamist are judged.

Contrary to the core American values of freedom and democracy, Senator Mark Kirk (Rep-IL) recently issued a statement in which he highlighted that "the United States and her allies should do all it can to support Egypt's army and secular leaders, ensuring no future for the Muslim Brotherhood."

During recent visits by top US officials including Secretary Hillary Clinton and Senators John Kerry, Joe Lieberman, and John McCain, not one meeting was made with leaders from the Muslim Brotherhood. Yet liberal political groups that do not even maintain a strong popular base were deemed legitimate enough to warrant meetings with these top American officials.

Some blame the widespread skepticism of the Muslim Brotherhood on the nature of the organization. The confidentiality of their society has kept them relatively unknown and thus misunderstood by Washington, leading to mistrust on the part of the Americans.

The Egyptian right wing forces should work toward proving the compatibility of Islam and democracy and the concept of citizenship' rights in order to foster a positive image inside and outside Egypt. Most importantly, Muslim Brotherhood should approach their new opportunity pragmatically, assess American and Western policies and rid themselves of their rigid ideological perspectives.

In his speech at Cairo University in June 2009, President Barack Obama stressed the notion of respect for the wishes and choices of the people of Egypt, explaining that "America respects the right of all peaceful and law-abiding voices to be heard around the world, even if we disagree with them. And we will welcome all elected, peaceful governments -- provided they govern with respect for all their people." Obama aimed to reassure Islamic forces that he is willing to open the lines of communication with them, new realities within Egypt's politics provides good opportunity to Obama to seize this opportunity before it is too late.

Mohamed Elmenshawy is adjunct Scholar at the Middle East Institute in Washington, he writes a weekly column for the Egyptian daily Shorouk.