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|Author:||KEITH JOHNSON in Washington and MARC CHAMPION in Alexandria, Egypt||Date:||03/02-2011|
The decision by Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to not stand for re-election forces the U.S. to confront a thorny dilemma-how to deal with Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood.
The 83-year-old Islamic movement, Egypt's biggest opposition bloc, played a subdued role in the uprising. But its past performance in parliamentary elections and its dedicated following mean it will be a force to be reckoned with as Egypt moves toward open elections.
Newly minted Vice President Omar Suleiman has indicated to U.S. diplomats that he wants any talks with the opposition to include the Brotherhood, U.S. officials say. That would mark a fundamental shift for Egypt's government, which outlawed the group in 1954 and says the Brotherhood is a threat to the country's stability.
The fundamental question, which has long divided analysts and U.S. officials: Is the Brotherhood a dangerous group bent on imposing Islamic law and subverting democracy, or is it a non-violent organization seeking to play by the rules of Western democracy while embracing Islam?
The group was founded as an anticolonial movement with the goal of creating an Islamic state, and some of its members have inspired violent, extremist offshoots. But the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt has since renounced violence and says its close current parallel is the Justice and Development Party, Turkey's Islamic-leaning ruling party.
The prospect of a role for the Muslim Brotherhood has already raised the hackles of Israel and U.S. lawmakers. Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain called the Brotherhood "a terrorist organization that supports Hamas."
Yuval Steinitz, Israel's finance minister, said in an interview that the Muslim Brotherhood's claims to represent a moderate Islamic party such as Turkey's AKP are disingenuous. "Don't be misled," he said. "The Muslim Brotherhood is fanatic, not less than the mullahs of Iran."
The Brotherhood has publicly thrown its support behind Mohamed ElBaredei, the Nobel laureate and former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, who emerged as the most visible face of Egyptian protests but whose long periods of absence from the country limit his popularity.
State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said Tuesday: "The Muslim Brotherhood is a reality in Egypt. It's very well organized and we'll be watching carefully to see what their intentions are."
U.S. diplomats have had contacts with the Muslim Brotherhood supporters elected to parliament, much to the chagrin of Mr. Mubarak. The contacts are restricted to these parliamentarians, who ran as independent candidates.
With the Mubarak regime in place, the Brotherhood's ability to participate in elections was limited. In 2005, it took 20% of parliamentary seats despite official intimidation and limits on its candidates.
Current members of the Muslim Brotherhood say the movement has been demonized by the Mubarak regime as one way to shore up U.S. support. Mr. Mubarak routinely jailed and intimidated its members, especially ahead of elections. Previous Egyptian rulers, including Gamal Nasser, did the same.
"The West looks at us like the Shia regime in Iran, but we aren't. We're much closer to the Turkish example," said Sobhi Saleh, a prominent Brotherhood member and senator in Egypt's parliament. He added that the group has no ambition to rule Egypt on its own, saying the country is too large and complex.
As the forerunner to many of the Middle East's tangle of Islamist groups, the Brotherhood has had violent associations. By the 1960s, after a crackdown by the Nasser regime, some Brotherhood members embraced a violent ideology. One, Said Qutb, directly influenced Ayman al Zawahiri and Osama bin Laden, who later helped found al Qaeda. Mr. Qutb's prison writings are still hugely influential today.
Since renouncing violence in the 1970s, the Muslim Brotherhood today is a bitter enemy of al Qaeda, which accuses it of selling out by obeying man-made laws.
The Muslim Brotherhood's offshoot in Gaza, known as Hamas, is classified as a terror organization by the U.S. and the European Union.
Many secular Egyptians were alarmed by the group's 2007 draft political program, which proposed setting up an Islamic council to vet laws and would have banned women and Christians running for president. The group has backed away from some of the more controversial parts of the document, such as the religious council.
"That was just an idea for discussion," said the group's Mr. Saleh, adding that in any case, secular courts would have the final decision. But the group has reaffirmed ideas such as limiting access of women and Christians to higher office.
In January 2010, the group selected a new leader, Mohammed Badie, a 67-year-old veterinary professor. Longtime observers of the Brotherhood say Mr. Badie represents a continuation of the group's conservative leadership core and precluded the rise of more moderate brothers.
Mr. Badie was sentenced to nine years in prison by the same tribunal that condemned Said Qutb in 1965, and has been jailed by the Egyptian government four times. He married the daughter of a prominent Brotherhood pioneer who was himself sentenced to death during a 1954 crackdown.
Mr. Badie has struck a moderate tone, emphasizing respect for women's rights and for democracy. But the group's formal demands for the next Egyptian government, released last week as protests gathered steam, contained harder-line messages including a call to cut ties with Israel and support the Palestinian resistance.
Mr. Saleh said the Muslim Brotherhood would aim to share decision making as part of a broader coalition. He said the Brotherhood would be open to working with the U.S. and would abide by Egypt's peace treaty with Israel, "so long as Israel doesn't breach the treaty first."
The U.S. attitude toward democracy in the Arab world has been cooled by the experience in the Gaza Strip, where Hamas won more than 40% of the vote. But some Mideast experts hold out the hope the Muslim Brotherhood could be an antidote to radical and violent Islamist movements.
"If the Muslim Brotherhood becomes part of the solution, it becomes much harder for the violent radicals," because it undermines the narrative of Arab grievance, said John L. Esposito of Georgetown University.
-Angus McDowall, Adam Entous and Janet Hook contributed to this article.