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Muslim Brotherhood Attempts To Charm U.S. Skeptics

Apr 5, 2012
Originally published on April 6, 2012 7:32 am

The political ascent of Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood has created some unease in Washington, and in an attempt to counter that, the group dispatched a delegation to the U.S. capital this week for meetings that range from administration officials to think tanks and universities.

The Brotherhood has rapidly evolved into a powerful political force since former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak was ousted from power in February of last year.

Since then, the Brotherhood has won parliamentary elections and just last week announced that it would be fielding a presidential candidate, despite saying previously that it wouldn't do so.

The delegation from the Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party, which includes three men and a woman, is on something of a charm offensive. But at an event Thursday at Georgetown University, the group was pressed on its vision for Egypt's future.

"It's not necessarily just a PR campaign, but mainly we would like to get to know one another more," said Dr. Abdul Mawgoud Dardery, a lawmaker who is part of the delegation. He said it's "very important to understand the American concerns and they understand our aspirations as Egyptians, after the Egyptian revolution."

The delegation drew a full house at Georgetown for a program titled, "To Know One Another." The Brotherhood members talked about restoring dignity and hope to the Egyptian people, providing better services and promoting democracy.

Delegation Is Pressed For Details

The group fielded questions for well over an hour as members of the audience tried to nail down the Brotherhood's stand on issues such as women's rights, religious minorities and the role of Islam in government.

"Our interest really is looking at what's best for the Egyptian people," said delegation member Khaled al-Qazzaz. "We evaluate things based on what is good for Egypt in the short term and in the long term."

But audience members continued to press the Islamist group on certain issues.

One asked why the Brotherhood said it wouldn't have a presidential candidate and then changed its mind.

Two members of the delegation said the decision came after much discussion. The Brotherhood selected Khairat el-Shater, a prominent businessman who is already considered to be a strong candidate for the election planned for next month.

Michele Dunne, the director of the Rafik Hariri Center at the Atlantic Council says the Muslim Brotherhood's flip-flopping is part of the evolution of a group that was banned for so many years. But Dunne says it bears watching, especially as it seeks to rewrite the constitution and consolidate power.

"I hope that in these conversations in Washington this week, these members of the Muslim Brotherhood will hear from American officials about thinking about how they should conduct themselves in power," Dunne said. "In other words, just because you have the majority doesn't mean that you should dominate the process so utterly."

Concern Over Peace Treaty

Steven Cook, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, says U.S. officials also need to listen carefully to what the Brotherhood's delegation is saying. He says the Islamist group has been short on detail during its events this week.

"In the ambiguous answers to some of the questions, you got a sense of how things might change on the U.S.-Egyptian front, whether it's related to Egypt-Israel relations or whether it's just on the bilateral relationship," Cook says.

He says if the Muslim Brotherhood holds power, Egypt is less likely to be as cooperative with the U.S. as it was during the Mubarak era. This could have an impact on regional security. Of particular concern to Americans and Israelis is how a new Egyptian government will approach the 1979 peace treaty between Egypt and Israel.

Although the Brotherhood has repeatedly said it will honor the agreement, Cook says the Brotherhood was savvy to send this particular group to the U.S. to make its case. They're fluent in English and comfortable speaking with Americans. Cook says it's unclear whether the delegation is representative of the broader group.

"They said many of the right things, or enough of the right things to make a good impression," he says. "They were convincing on a variety of issues."

But Cook adds that the U.S. needs to judge the Muslim Brotherhood not by what it says in the U.S. but by what it does back in Egypt.

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

A delegation from Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood has been visiting Washington this week. They've been meeting with Obama administration officials and policy experts. It's the first formal visit to the U.S. by the Islamist group since former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak was ousted in early 2011. Since then the Brotherhood's power has grown. They succeeded in parliamentary elections and are now fielding a candidate for president, and they're trying to ease American concerns about what their growing influence means. NPR's Jackie Northam reports.

JACKIE NORTHAM, BYLINE: The delegation from the Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice party - made up of three men and one woman - arrived in D.C. earlier this week to a schedule packed with media availabilities, events at the city's various think tanks, and some one on one time with administration officials. Dr. Abdul Mawgoud Dardery, an Egyptian lawmaker, and one of the delegates, called the visit multi-faceted.

DR. ABDUL MAWGOUD DARDERY: It's not necessarily just a PR campaign, but mainly we would like to get to know one another more on a firsthand experience. Face to face discussion are very important to understand the American concerns and they understand our aspirations as Egyptians, after the Egyptian revolution.

NORTHAM: It was a full house at Georgetown University for this event, which was titled To Know One Another. The Muslim Brotherhood delegation talked about restoring dignity and hope to the Egyptian people, providing better services, promoting democracy. The group fielded questions for well over an hour as members of the audience tried to nail down the Brotherhood's stand on issues such as women rights, religious minorities, and the role of Islam in government. Delegation member Khaled al-Qazzaz.

KHALED AL-QAZZAZ: Our interest really is looking at what is best for the Egyptian people, and we evaluate things based on what is good for Egypt in the short term and on the long term.

NORTHAM: But members of the audience continued to press the Islamist group on certain issues.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Why does the Muslim Brotherhood change its position all the time? You first said that you will not have a presidential candidate and then you changed that, and now you have a presidential candidate.

NORTHAM: Two members of the delegation explained that Muslim Brotherhood decision came only after much discussion. Michele Dunne, the director of the Rafik Hariri Center at the Atlantic Council, says in part the Muslim Brotherhood's flip-flopping is part of the evolution of a group that was banned for so many years. But Dunne says it bears watching, especially as the group seeks to rewrite the constitution and consolidate power.

MICHELE DUNNE: I hope that in these conversations in Washington this week, these members of the Muslim Brotherhood will hear from American officials about thinking about how they should conduct themselves in power. In other words, just because you have the majority doesn't mean that you should dominate the process so utterly.

NORTHAM: Steven Cook, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, says U.S. officials also need to listen carefully to what the Brotherhood's delegation is saying. He says during this week's events the Islamist group has been short on detail.

STEVEN COOK: In the ambiguous answers to some of the questions, you got a sense of how things might change on the U.S.-Egyptian front, whether it's related to Egypt-Israel relations or whether it's just on the bilateral relationship itself.

NORTHAM: Cook says if the Muslim Brotherhood holds power, Egypt is less likely to be as malleable to the U.S. as it was during the Mubarak era. This could have an impact on security in the region, the Camp David peace accord with Israel.

Although the Brotherhood has stated repeatedly, it will honor that agreement. Cook says the Brotherhood was savvy to send this particular group to the U.S. to make its case. They're fluent in English and comfortable speaking with Americans. Cook says it's unclear if the delegation is representative of the Islamist group. But...

COOK: They said many of the right things or enough of the right things to make a good impression. Their ability to answer the tough questions, they were convincing on a variety of issues, I think made an impression on people.

NORTHAM: But Cook adds that the U.S. needs to judge the Muslim Brotherhood not by what it says in the U.S. but what it does back in Egypt.

Jackie Northam, NPR News, Washington.

INSKEEP: Now, one of the major contenders in Egypt's presidential election has received a reminder that it's an awfully small world. Hazem Abu Ismail is a leader of an ultra-conservative Islamist movement. He is known for frequent anti-American speeches.

And he was expected to do well in next month's vote, but Egypt's election commission says it has confirmed that the anti-American candidate's mother obtained American citizenship several years ago, which means he could be disqualified from the race.

Egyptian law stipulates that both parents of any presidential candidate can only hold Egyptian citizenship. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.