As reports of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak’s imminent departure from office were breaking on Thursday, concern about the Muslim Brotherhood, and the perceived threat it poses, was dominating the discussion at a House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing on Egypt.
“Engaging the Muslim Brotherhood must not be on the table,” Chairwoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL) said.
Rep. Gregory Meeks (D-NY) opined that putting so much focus on the Muslim Brotherhood was akin to warning your daughter not to date someone you don’t like — you could end up throwing her right into their arms.
Not to be outdone in awkward metaphor, Rep. Gary Ackerman (D-NY) said letting the Muslim Brotherhood become a legitimate voice in the region was like inviting serial killer, sex offender and cannibal Jeffrey Dahmer over to your house.
Rep. Steve Chabot (R-OH) was more straightforward, saying that preventing the Muslim Brotherhood from taking power must be a “leading priority.”
But many experts say that the threat of the Muslim Brotherhood, which has long been outlawed in Egypt under Mubarak, has been exaggerated.
“The Mubarak regime has waved the [Muslim Brotherhood] as a red flag (if not us, it would be them), but it’s a red herring,” said Jon Anderson, a professor at Catholic University who specializes in the Middle East.
The Muslim Brotherhood, Anderson wrote in an e-mail, is “an aged bunch that should be counted as among the older parts of Egypt’s moderate middle, corresponding to the religious right in US politics.”
As Michael Isikoff reports, the Muslim Brotherhood’s goals and motives “have been the subject of intense scrutiny and debate among U.S. officials.”
The Islamist movement was founded in 1928 and is still committed to the imposition of Islamic law and does not recognize the validity of Egypt’s treaty with Israel, Isikoff writes. But because it has renounced violence, officials in the U.S. have argued that leaders of the movement can be brought into a political dialogue.
Deputy Secretary of State James B. Steinberg said at Thursday’s hearing that while there was “a lot of speculation” over who would take over Egypt if President Hosni Mubarak stepped down, the administration wants the people of Egypt to determine their own future.
“What’s important is that the next government respect the sorts of democratic principles that we’ve talked about,” Steinberg said.
Steinberg noted that the committee seemed to be spending an inordinate amount of time on the issue of the Muslim Brotherhood.
Steinberg said it was important for the next government to allow all citizens to participate in a democracy, while saying Washington would not back any group inconsistent with U.S. principles.