U.S. May Be Softening Stance on Muslim Brotherhood

A brief encounter at a Cairo cocktail party could signal a shift in Bush administration policy toward the Muslim Brotherhood, a worldwide Islamic movement that the United States has shunned because of its alleged ties to terrorism. The party, at the residence of U.S. Ambassador to Egypt Francis Ricciardone, was for House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer and other visiting members of Congress. While there, Hoyer told NEWSWEEK, he was introduced by a U.S. Embassy official to one of the invited guests: Mohammed Saad el-Katatni, a Brotherhood leader who also serves as a chief of an "independent" bloc in the Egyptian Parliament allied with the movement, which itself is banned by the Egyptian government. Hoyer told the embassy he wanted to hear "alternative" voices in Egypt. He had met el-Katatni with other Parliament members earlier in the day. But, Hoyer said, "we didn't ask that the Brotherhood be included in the reception. Frankly, we were surprised to see him." During their five-minute talk, Hoyer and el-Katatni debated the role of Hamas, the Palestinian offshoot of the Brotherhood. "He was definitely rationalizing Hamas's position," said Hoyer.

U.S. officials in Egypt at first downplayed the meeting's significance, claiming that embassy officials have met in the past with Brotherhood members who are in the Parliament. But a senior U.S. official (who declined to be identified because of diplomatic sensitivities) says the invite to el-Katatni was "cleared" by the State Department and represented the highest-level contacts with the Brotherhood since 9/11. "This doesn't mean we are embracing the group," the official says. "It means we recognize that we have to listen to a wide range of voices." The meeting was also a "subtle, smart way to express concern" over a recent crackdown in which Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak's government has arrested other Brotherhood leaders and charged them in secret military courts.

The apparent softening in the U.S. approach is controversial. Some counterterror officials have been pressing for years for a full-scale U.S. intel investigation of the Brotherhood, arguing that, despite its public disavowal of violence, the group aims to create a worldwide Islamic state. "They are a wolf in sheep's clothing," says Chris Hamilton, a former FBI counterterror official. But another top Brotherhood leader, Yousef Nada—a Swiss banker whom U.S. officials have accused of being a terrorist financier—says (in a PBS documentary about the Brotherhood, airing this week) that Washington will have to deal with the group "if they want ... peace in this area." Nada vehemently denies any connection with terrorism.