Thu February 3, 2011
Anti-Government Protests Roil Egypt

Post Mubarak: Muslim Brotherhood Could Play Role

With the departure of Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak looking increasingly likely, the Obama administration has been meeting regularly to discuss the situation there. In particular, what a new government in Egypt might look like.

One of the groups that would likely be part of the political process in a post-Mubarak era is the Muslim Brotherhood. But how would the administration deal with the Islamist group, if it does become part of a new government?

The Muslim Brotherhood has been a part of Egypt's social fabric since the late 1920s, but it was banned by the Mubarak regime.

Because of that ban, the U.S. has had only limited contact with the Muslim Brotherhood, says Jon Alterman, director of the Middle East program with the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Alterman was among a group of Mideast analysts called to the White House earlier this week to discuss the quickly developing situation in Egypt. He says he was struck by the administration's stand on the Muslim Brotherhood.

"The White House isn't overly concerned with the Brotherhood being part of a more open and participatory politics in Egypt," Alterman says. "There's not a deep fear that if there's any Brotherhood participation that that spells the end of U.S. interests in Egypt. In fact, there is a sense that U.S. interests in Egypt dictate that Islamists should be participating in more vibrant politics along with everybody else."

Alterman says the Obama administration understands there are a lot of people in Egypt who believe religion should have some role in public life, whether they belong to the Muslim Brotherhood or not; that the U.S. shouldn't turn its back on the group just because it's Islamist.

"The White House has a general sense that Egyptian politics need to somehow reflect Egyptian society," Alterman says. "Insisting on authoritarian secularist regimes doesn't meet U.S. interests in the long term, nor does it meet Egypt's interests."

The scale and importance of the unfolding events in Egypt are reminiscent of the 1979 Iranian revolution, which ushered in an Islamist regime.

Samer Shehata, an assistant professor of Arab politics at Georgetown University, says he fears that too many people will draw parallels with that time.

"There are many people in Congress, and in the general public, of course, that when they hear Islamist politics or the Muslim Brotherhood and so on, there's no understanding. They immediately think of al-Qaida or Hamas or Hezbollah even. And this is a fundamentally different type of organization," Shehata says.

Hamas is in fact one off-shoot of the Muslim Brotherhood, but Shehata says the Muslim Brotherhood has no military wing or weapons, and renounced violence some 60 years ago.

But Leslie Gelb, the president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations, says no one knows for sure if that will change once the ban on the Islamist group is lifted. The Muslim Brotherhood says it supports democracy and free speech but it is also anti-Israeli, and opposes the Egyptian-Israeli peace agreement.

"We know their track record on foreign policy," Gelb says. "It will be much more independent of the U.S. In many cases, contrary to U.S. foreign policy. There's no question about that whatsoever, and that's very important."

Gelb says the Muslim Brotherhood is currently Egypt's best organized opposition group. And in a disorganized political landscape, could eventually take control of the government.

White House spokesman Robert Gibbs indicated that the U.S. would not walk unconditionally into a relation with the Muslim Brotherhood. That the administration needs assurances on several fronts: "Adherence to the law, adherence to nonviolence and a willingness to be part of a democratic process but not use that democratic process to simply instill yourself into power."

Gibbs stressed it's not for the U.S. to determine who governs Egypt but as a powerful ally, Washington will try to work with any power brokers there. Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.