PBS Frontline

Why is America Reaching Out to the Muslim Brotherhood?

As the final results of Egypt's parliamentary elections come in this week, the country's Islamists are walking away the biggest winners.

The Muslim Brotherhood's projected 40 percent electoral victory brings an added benefit - international legitimacy, enhanced recently by reports that the U.S., which had long formally shunned the Islamist group, is now engaging with it. Al-Nour, a Salafi political block of more hardline and ultraconservative Islamists, also did unexpectedly well, taking about 25 percent of the vote in preliminary counts.

FRONTLINE talked to Shadi Hamid, Director of Research at the Brookings Institution's Doha Center and a fellow at its Saban Center for Middle East Policy, to explore what's behind the latest U.S. efforts to engage with the Brotherhood, and what's at stake - for both the U.S. and the Brotherhood - with the Salafis' unanticipated success.

What kind of U.S.-Brotherhood engagement is happening right now and how significant or unprecedented is this contact?

The Brotherhood has very strong nationalist credentials, it has very strong anti-American credentials, so it can actually counterintuitively get away with being closer to the U.S.

We shouldn’t overstate the degree of engagement. It’s still fairly limited at this point. It’s just a couple meetings here and there.

But as recently as October, [U.S. Ambassador to Egypt] Ann Patterson was quoted as saying that she personally wasn’t comfortable meeting with members of Muslim Brotherhood. That’s pretty concerning. And I think that’s illustrative of where the U.S. has been and the challenges it’s going to face. …

Today, the U.S. still hasn’t worked out a coherent policy toward Islamist parties in the region, and maybe they don’t want to. There’s no grand strategic vision. It’s one thing to meet a couple leaders of the Brotherhood every other month; I think it’s another to have a substantive strategic dialogue. I think the latter is what’s necessary, but the former is what we have right now. So the question for U.S. policymakers is what are the objectives for engagement? What does this all lead to? …

Why now? What factors are at play in these more public contacts with the Brotherhood right now?

The [parliamentary] elections are the big difference here. The results are in and they’re unmistakable: They have confirmed that the Muslim Brotherhood will be the dominant political player in Egypt for the foreseeable future — and this could be 20 or 30 years or God knows how long. It’s going to take a considerable period of time for liberals to ever replace Islamists in that respect. …

The [parliamentary] elections are the big difference here. The results are in and they’re unmistakable: They have confirmed that the Muslim Brotherhood will be the dominant political player in Egypt for the foreseeable future — and this could be 20 or 30 years or God knows how long. It’s going to take a considerable period of time for liberals to ever replace Islamists in that respect. …

I think that reality is now dawning on U.S. policy-makers in a very serious way. The Brotherhood is a fact on the ground, and you have to find a way to work with it, to talk with it. The U.S. is now forced to try to find a way to co-exist with the Brotherhood. It requires a mental shift on the part of U.S. policy-makers.

But I don’t think we should give the Obama administration too much credit on this. They should have been doing this earlier, because anyone who was watching Egypt knew that the Brotherhood was going to be the most important player in a democratic Egypt regardless.

If the U.S. was really ahead of the curve it would have been engaging with the Brotherhood in 2005 [when candidates affiliated with the group won 20 percent of the vote in the country's parliamentary elections]. That way there could have actually been an established relationship between them, an established degree of trust.

But now they’re starting from square one, and it’s going to take time to build and develop that relationship.  It’s never going to happen overnight, considering how much mistrust there is between the two sides historically.

Read the full interview at PBS.org »