What Does the U.S. Want to Talk to the Brotherhood About?

Islamists rise in Egypt. 

In a confusing set of statements at the end of June, Washington appeared to be taking a bold initiative and denying it at the same time. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton personally announced that "it is in the interests of the United States to engage with all parties that are peaceful and committed to nonviolence . . . .We welcome, therefore, dialogue with those Muslim Brotherhood members who wish to talk with us."

But later that day, a State Department spokesman disavowed any change, noting that the U.S. relationship with the Muslim Brotherhood has existed on and off since roughly 2006. "Embassy officials and officials from Washington are permitted to engage with Muslim Brotherhood members, and we welcome this contact," he said.

What is the real U.S. approach to the Brotherhood—the Ikhwan—and why does it have so much trouble explaining itself? Should the United States be choosing this time to wade into struggles for Egypt's political soul by "engaging" the Muslim Brotherhood?

Having normal diplomatic contact with the Ikhwan makes sense. But trumpeting the policy in such a way is a mistake—it generates exaggerated expectations and fears all around. More importantly, it risks distracting from the real issue, which is whether Egyptian political forces can engage each other, not whether they can engage the United States.

In this sense, the later State Department announcement, while giving the policy a slightly misleading spin, may have been closer to the mark. The United States has never had extensive ties with the Brotherhood but neither has it generally treated the movement as a pariah; it has been careful about direct contact less because of fears about terrorism (the Egyptian Brotherhood has not engaged in political violence for many decades) and more because Egypt's overthrown rulers were so sensitive about the subject.

Now that President Hosni Mubarak and his regime are gone, U.S. diplomats can do their job in Egypt as they have done it in other countries in the region for years. What we are likely to see as a result of the Obama administration's move is not some grand dialogue between the United States and the Islamist movement but instead a slow and limited resumption of normal diplomatic contact with a leading social and political actor.

I do not mean to imply that the role of Islamists in Egypt's political future is a minor issue. Indeed, as I wandered through a recent Islamist demonstration in Tahrir Square, I was impressed on many levels. With the enormous number of long-bearded salafi men attending, it must have marked the most imposing concentration of facial hair in one geographical location in world history. It also marked another step in the polarization of Egypt's political life between Islamist and non-Islamist political forces. In the post-revolutionary environment, neither side is likely to win full control. They must ultimately come to terms with each other, however, and work out ways of peaceful political competition. But as the country reconstructs its political system—moving toward elections and the writing of a new constitution—the polarized rivals show only the most limited signs of reaching for common ground right now.

For the United States, the most important thing is to keep its eye on the ball of the Egyptian political process. The stakes are thus enormously high in the struggle over Egypt's identity. Washington can signal very effectively that it supports that process by treating the Ikhwan as it would any other political actor with which it has policy disagreements—by engaging in discussions and attempts at persuasion. The main interlocutor for the U.S. government is, of course, the Egyptian government—but in a more democratic atmosphere, the United States also needs to establish regular ties with the various forces in the Egyptian political spectrum. That's just normal diplomacy.

To cut through the hype, it's helpful to review the actual record of U.S.-Brotherhood contacts since the movement's reemergence in Egypt in the 1970s. Until the 1990s, U.S. diplomats did not go out of their way to avoid Brotherhood members, and it would have been hard to do so—they were strong in Egypt's professional associations and prominent in its intellectual ranks (and occasionally in parliament as well). But when Mubarak's regime turned its ferocious repressive tools against the Brotherhood, it signaled that it no longer accepted such contact as normal and the United States backed off.