Obama woos progressives, talks with Islamists

Neil Munro White House Correspondent
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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.

D.C.-based experts who abhor the Brotherhood’s political agenda say the U.S. administration must reset its policy towards the elected radical Islamist groups.

“The administration could be doing a better job by saying to the American public that ‘What the Muslim Brotherhood believes is problematic and we disagree with them, but if we want Egypt that is at peace with Israel, and an Egypt that helps us fight terrorism and that protects Christians [in Egypt], these are the people who will either do it or not,’” said Trager.

Officials must acknowledge that the brotherhood is serious about its push for Shariah, he said. “They will probably be more repressive than the Mubarak regime… [because] the Muslim Brotherhood is actually advocating interventions in people’s personal lives.”

Trager said that to ensure public support in the U.S. for a difficult engagement with the Brotherhood, and to boost political stability in a Brotherhood-run Egypt, administration officials need to privately or publicly push back against the Brotherhood’s repression policies.

That pushback should include criticism of the Brotherhood’s support for genital mutilation and street harassment of women, he said.

Carney declined to discuss what the administration officials said to the Brotherhood officials.

“We are very candid in all of our discussions with actors on the political scene in Egypt and elsewhere about what we consider to be appropriate and democratic conduct,” he said while evading a question on whether U.S. officials had asked Brotherhood officials to stop the repression of Egyptian Christians.

Top administration officials are “not suitably skeptical or cautious about the Brotherhood,” said Danielle Pletka, the vice-president for foreign and defense policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute.

“The administration is clearly comfortable with the Islamists… they think they can deal with them,” and achieve their highest priority of avoiding an open war between Egypt and Israel, she said.

But the Brotherhood “is an ideologically committed organization [and] I don’t think they’re as politically flexible as the Mubarak government,” she said.

A war with Israel could stop U.S. aid, stop tourism, close the Suez Canal and crash the Egyptian economy, whose growth ended shortly before Mubarak was forced from power by public demonstrations and U.S. pressure.

Yet the Brotherhood opposes Israel for religious reasons, not because there’s no land-for-peace deal between the Israelis and the Arabs living in or near Israel.

“It will be very difficult for the Muslim Brotherhood to sustain support for doing nothing [against Israel], given how the Egyptian press and Egyptian military and the Brotherhood itself has agitated against the ‘zionist enemy,’” Pletka said.

The Brotherhood’s balancing act is made even more difficult by the popularity of the rival Salafi movement, she said.

Even if Brotherhood officials promise tolerant policies when meeting officials in Washington D.C., said Pletka, the demands of Egypt’s democracy ensure “they’re not going to position themselves as more liberal than the [Salafi] hardliners.”

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