Why America Should Engage Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood Now

With their constitutional referendum held and their parliamentary elections now scheduled for later this year, Egyptians are not wasting time constructing a post-revolution future. Just what that future will look like in its political composition is still uncertain, but what is certain is the Muslim Brotherhood, the country’s long-standing opposition movement, will play a significant role in a post-Mubarak Egypt, a reality the U.S. ought to embrace.

In the weeks since former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak’s resignation, the very term “Muslim Brotherhood” has become something of a buzz word among pundits and some members of Congress, who are determined to label the Brotherhood as an extremist organization bent on leading Egypt towards an Iranian-style theocracy. Such uninformed alarm hindered any real dialogue between the U.S. and the Brotherhood even during the Mubarak era and is now doing little to further genuine U.S. interests in a new Egypt.

In its “dogmatic” refusal to engage the Brotherhood, the U.S. has “alienated a huge part of Egyptian society,” says Ayman Mohyeldin, the Al-Jazeera English correspondent who covered the Egyptian revolution since its earliest days back in January. Speaking at an event in Washington D.C. on March 29, Mohyeldin added that the Brotherhood is a “key part of Egypt’s political and social and cultural fabric. This is not an organization that is on the fringes; this is not an extremist organization. This is a mainstream organization.”

A mainstream organization composed not of young jihadis, but lawyers, doctors, and engineers. The group renounced violence decades ago and has garnered wide spread appeal in the country for its comprehensive social-welfare infrastructure. Where the state often failed Egypt’s myriad poor, the Brotherhood stepped in to provide education and health care. Even during the protests, the Brotherhood did not seek to commandeer a movement spurred primarily by the youth of Egypt; rather, Brotherhood members stood shoulder to shoulder with leftists and liberals alike calling for Mubarak’s resignation.

As to the charges that the Brotherhood’s considerable support throughout Egypt will impede the efforts of smaller secular groups competing for a seat at the governing table, the organization has promised not to field a presidential candidate and will campaign for only one-third of the seats in parliament, not enough for a majority.

While the Brotherhood has been critical of Israel, there is nothing to suggest an Egyptian secular party would be more willing to honor the peace agreement than an Islamist one. Moreover, the Brotherhood is keenly aware that maintenance of the peace treaty is the linchpin of the nearly $2 billion Egypt receives in critical U.S. aid.

The U.S. ought to engage the Brotherhood immediately, especially with the number of more conservative, Salafist parties on the rise in Egypt, whose agendas are far less transparent. The Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood is a group that can reasonably blend the tenets of Islam with those of democracy and a U.S.-instigated dialogue with them would resonate across the broader region with those Arabs still clamoring to be heard.

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