Islamist Gains in Egyptian Vote Put U.S. in Bind

Candidates affiliated with the banned Islamist organization the Muslim Brotherhood made a strong showing in Egypt's recent parliamentary election. Some Egypt watchers say the Bush administration needs to engage with the Brotherhood if it wants its pro-democracy agenda to be viewed as credible in the Middle East.

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DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:

The Bush administration's push for democracy in the Arab world is being tested in Egypt. Independent candidates with ties to the banned Islamist movement, the Muslim Brotherhood, won about 20 percent of the seats in recent parliamentary elections. Some analysts say this shows the risk of promoting democracy in Egypt, a key US ally. NPR's Michele Kelemen reports.

MICHELE KELEMEN reporting:

As a onetime political prisoner in Egypt, Saad Eddin Ibrahim is all for America's democracy push in the Arab world, but the secular opposition figure says the only way for the US to be credible is to talk to the Islamists. He made this call at a small luncheon recently at the conservative think tank the American Enterprise Institute.

Mr. SAAD EDDIN IBRAHIM: My advice to Americans is to engage the Islamists, not only in Egypt but in the region. Sooner or later, they will have to deal with them.

KELEMEN: Some of the US officials, Hill staffers and analysts on hand seemed skeptical, but Ibrahim persisted, arguing that America seems to have a myopic view dealing with Islamists in Iraq but not elsewhere in the Arab world. As for the poor showing of Egypt's secular opposition, Ibrahim blamed that on the Egyptian government, which he says has squeezed the middle.

Mr. IBRAHIM: Any liberal alternative, no matter how modest it may be, even a moderate Islamic alternative is fiercely resisted by the regime. The regime wants to have frightening Islamists as the only alternative to them.

KELEMEN: The Middle East and North Africa program director for the International Crisis Group, Robert Malley, says this is a dangerous path for Egypt.

Mr. ROBERT MALLEY (International Crisis Group): That's a strategy that has worked perhaps so far but that has a real risk of backfiring if the dominant party loses credibility and if all discontent and frustration gets expressed through the Islamists.

KELEMEN: Malley, a former White House aide, sees a message for the US.

Mr. MALLEY: Not necessarily to support one party or the legalization of a party but rather to support an open democratic process and the conditions under which a number of parties could emerge.

KELEMEN: The editor of the Carnegie Endowment's Arab Reform Bulletin Michelle Dunne agrees, saying the US should focus on the political process. She doesn't believe the US needs to open some sort of formal dialogue with the Muslim Brotherhood though she questions the Bush administration's policy.

Ms. MICHELLE DUNNE (Editor, Arab Reform Bulletin): US diplomats used to speak, you know, quietly to people from all opposition forces in Egypt, including the Muslim Brotherhood. And then at some point, the Egyptian government objected and the United States backed off. And then they later articulated this policy, that, `Well, we don't speak to the Muslim Brotherhood because it's an illegal organization.'

KELEMEN: State Department officials have had a difficult time explaining this lately. Spokesman Adam Ereli suggested Americans can talk with newly elected members of Egypt's parliament.

Mr. ADAM ERELI (State Department Spokesman): Those candidates that you refer to as Muslim Brothers are elected as independent candidates not affiliated with a party.

KELEMEN: He used that technicality, too, as he responded to the elections. He said the US believes this vote was a step forward for pluralism because there are more oppositions figures in parliament than ever before. But there is still no middle ground, and the several rounds of voting were marred by violence. Saad Eddin Ibrahim, the former political prisoner, says if the US is serious about democracy, it needs to do more than subtle nudging.

Mr. IBRAHIM: This regimes do not take subtle messages seriously. You have to be forceful and you have to put conditionality with every message.

KELEMEN: In other words, conditions on US aid.

Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington.

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