Obama woos progressives, talks with Islamists

President Barack Obama told progressive donors Thursday that he is pushing a diplomatic strategy that would champion women and minorities overseas.

His pitch came just two days after his deputies quietly met with members of the fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood party that is now set to rule Egypt after Obama withdrew U.S. support from the Egyptian dictator, Hosni Mubarak.

“We’ve got to have as powerful a diplomatic strategy, as powerful as an economic strategy … [where] we are exporting our values and upholding core ideas about how women are treated … how the young are treated and how minorities are treated, because that’s part of what makes us special,” Obama told 250 progressives who had paid $2,500 to attend the fundraiser.

Obama’s campaign-trail mention of minority rights echoes his 2011 policy of promoting gay and lesbian rights in Arab, Asian and African countries.

However, White House officials refused on Thursday to detail the meeting with the Brotherhood officials, which came as the Brotherhood’s presidential candidate promised an Egyptian audience that Shariah law would be the “first and final” goal of his election.

Shariah is a 1,400 year-old legal code that uses the Koran to set both religious practice and government law. When adopted or enforced in countries such as Saudi Arabia, Iran, Pakistan or Afghanistan, it sharply limits free speech, opportunities for women, business freedoms and the status of non-Muslims.

In recent days, elected Brotherhood leaders in Egypt have stepped up their effort to establish Shariah in Egypt, said Eric Trager, a Brotherhood expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

For example, he said, a female Brotherhood legislator is calling for the revocation of recent laws that bar the circumcision of young girls, a practice dubbed female genital mutilation. Other brotherhood legislators want to revoke laws that bar the street harassment of women, he said.

Women — sometimes including Western journalists — who do not wear shape-obscuring clothing, such as cloaks and scarves, are often subject to tough harassment in Arab streets. In February 2011, CBS reporter Lara Logan was brutally assaulted in Egypt’s Tahrir Square by crowds during demonstrations against Mubarak, then Egypt’s secular strongman.

Administration officials indirectly acknowledge the problem posed by the popularity of Islamist parties, but are loath to discuss political conflicts with Egyptian Islamists.

“In the aftermath of Egypt’s revolution, we have broadened our engagement to include new and emerging political parties and actors,” White House spokesman Jay Carney said April 5. “We will judge Egyptian political actors by how they act, not by their religious affiliation,” he claimed.

However, the meeting and Carney’s statement came after the movement violated its pre-election promises in 2011 to not seek a majority of legislative seats and to not run for the presidency. The Brotherhood candidate, Khairat al-Shater, is running for president on a pro-Shariah platform and is expected to win.

Those promises were made when Obama was considering whether to withdraw U.S. support from Mubarak. After Obama withdrew his support, Mubarak’s government fell. The Brotherhood party and its Islamist allies won control of the parliament and of a panel that is writing the country’s new constitution.

Egypt’s Christian Copts, as well as the secularists and free-market advocates who are dubbed “liberals” by the Western media, have quit the panel after saying they have little influence. The liberal parties hold only seven of the 498 seats in the parliament.

The Brotherhood holds 235 seats, while the even more fundamentalist, Saudi-style Salafi party holds 123 seats.