In the last week, the U.S. has taken important steps towards signaling accommodation to a role for Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood in democracy in Egypt. At the same time, the Muslim Brotherhood has been signaling to the U.S. that it is seeking to cooperate. This is a potentially game-changing political development in the region. It could prove crucial to U.S. efforts to negotiate a peaceful, orderly transition to democracy in Egypt. Over time, it could help move forward the search for peace in the Middle East, because the Muslim Brotherhood has the capacity to help do in the region what the U.S. is looking to the Muslim Brotherhood to do in Egypt today: help legitimize a process of transition.
The Muslim Brotherhood is the best-organized Egyptian opposition group. That's crucial now, because the U.S. is trying to broker negotiations between the government and the opposition. The fact that the opposition has been largely unorganized -- a legacy of 30 years of repression -- makes negotiations more challenging. The US is looking towards "prominent Egyptians" to play a role in helping to lead Egypt out of the impasse. These "prominent Egyptians" are looking to the Muslim Brotherhood to help legitimize a process of transition. "[U.S.] officials now believe that ... indications that the Muslim Brotherhood has begun to step into a more visible leadership role have made prominent Egyptians more receptive to appeals to step up to the plate," the Washington Post reports today.
On Sunday, the National Coalition for Change, which groups several opposition movements including the Muslim Brotherhood, endorsed Mohamed ElBaradei to negotiate with the Egyptian government for Mubarak's departure. The choice of ElBaradei, a veteran international diplomat with good relations with the Obama Administration, was a clear signal to the U.S. that the Brotherhood was looking toward accommodation with the U.S. in order to help bring democracy to Egypt.
On Monday, the U.S. indicated an opening to the Brotherhood. The Washington Post reported:
On Monday, in what analysts said was a clear reference to the Brotherhood, the White House said a new government in Egypt should "include a whole host of important non-secular actors."
The Post described the White House move as "a rhetorical olive branch to the Brotherhood."
On Wednesday, the U.S. took another step toward accommodation with the Brotherhood. The Guardian reported:
10.17pm GMT: More from the State Department, with spokesman PJ Crowley suggesting that the US is reconciled to the Muslim Brotherhood being a part of whatever government replaces Mubarak's regime.
After urging the Muslim Brotherhood to respect democratic processes, Crowley acknowledged that its presence is "a fact of life in Egypt".
On Thursday, another U.S. step towards accommodation was reported by the New York Times:
The Obama administration is discussing with Egyptian officials a proposal for President Hosni Mubarak to resign immediately and turn over power to a transitional government headed by Vice President Omar Suleiman with the support of the Egyptian military, administration officials and Arab diplomats said Thursday. [...] The proposal also calls for the transitional government to invite members from a broad range of opposition groups, including the banned Muslim Brotherhood, to begin work to open up the country's electoral system in an effort to bring about free and fair elections in September, the officials said.
On Friday, the Brotherhood responded with a conciliatory gesture of its own, the New York Times reported:
On Thursday, the authorities ... offered dialogue with the banned Muslim Brotherhood, a gesture almost unthinkable weeks ago.
For its part, the Brotherhood insisted on Friday that it had no ambitions to field presidential candidates if those talks took place...speaking to reporters in Tahrir Square, Mohammed el-Beltagui, a leading member of the outlawed group, said that if Mr. Mubarak left, the Brotherhood - the most organized opposition in the country - would not present a candidate for election.
"It is not a retreat," Mr. Beltagui said. "It is to take away the scare tactics that Hosni Mubarak uses to deceive the people here and abroad that he should stay in power." A close ally of the United States, Mr. Mubarak has cast himself for years as a bulwark against Islamic extremism.
It may seem contradictory, that just as the U.S. is saying, we can live with the Muslim Brotherhood participating in the government, the Muslim Brotherhood is saying, we don't need to participate in the government. But in fact these are complementary movements, trying to establish trust for the coming negotiations. The Muslim Brotherhood needs to the US to pressure the Egyptian government towards supporting a real transition to democracy. The US needs the Muslim Brotherhood to help legitimize a process of transition.
Over time, this rapprochement could help promote peace between Israel and the Palestinians. The Muslim Brotherhood has good relations with its sister organization Hamas, a fact constantly cited in the past in explaining the Mubarak government's hostility to Hamas. The U.S. "cooties" policy with respect to Hamas is going to look quite silly in the region after the "cooties" policy with respect to the Muslim Brotherhood has been dropped, and there seems little prospect that a democratically elected Egyptian government will collaborate with such a "cooties" policy, with or without the Muslim Brotherhood. So the isolation policy with respect to Hamas is likely to fall. On the other hand, because the Muslim Brotherhood has good relations with Hamas, it can help bring Hamas to the table and keep them there. A coalition government in Egypt that formally or informally includes the Muslim Brotherhood will set a good precedent for the Palestinians, helping Fatah and Hamas to reconcile. And Fatah-Hamas reconciliation is likely to be a precondition of a durable peace between Israel and the Palestinians.
The Obama Administration and its State Department deserve high praise for introducing this element of perestroika to U.S. policy in the Middle East. Go USA!
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