Congressional delegation meets with MB - again

Remember how a few weeks ago a Congressional delegation met -- both in parliament and at an embassy function -- MPs from the Muslim Brotherhood? That time around, the Egyptian government did not respond, even though it has always opposed contacts between foreign countries and the MB. Yesterday, another delegation met with MP Saad Katatni, the MB's leader in parliament, and Egyptian officials were this time quick to speak out:

Egypt criticized the U.S. Sunday after four Congress members met with a lawmaker from the banned Muslim Brotherhood, less than two months after House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer met the same politician.

The bipartisan delegation headed by Rep. David Price, D-N.C., met with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak early Sunday before heading to parliament to talk to a group of lawmakers that included the Brotherhood's Mohammed Saad el-Katatni.

"The United States says that it doesn't establish relations with a banned group, whether in Egypt or outside Egypt," said Mubarak's spokesman Suleiman Awaad. "The U.S. says it is meeting with the Brotherhood as Parliament members, but doesn't make the same distinction and refuses to talk with Hamas, who is heading the Palestinian government and is occupying the prime minister's seat."
While that's an excellent point about Hamas (there's nothing wrong with meeting with them, just like there's nothing wrong meeting with the MB MPs) it's rather disingenuous to trot it out when Egypt is a full partner in the US-Israeli strategy to bring down the Hamas government. And it's not like the Egyptians are particularly fond of Hamas anyway, or that they're likely to change their approach to the group. As an American official recently told me (I paraphrase), "the Egyptians think they're doing us a big favor with Hamas, but we keep reminding them that it's in their interest too."

Anyway, the interesting thing with this second US congressional meeting with the MB is that things are beginning to look like a pattern. The first meeting a few weeks ago looked like a feeler, as if US diplomats were testing the waters. That may still be what's taking place, particularly if it's something that the congressional delegation asked for (I believe the previous one wanted to see something different than the usual NDP apparatchiks). Or it may be a genuine change in policy, using the loophole the US embassy has always reserved -- that it feels free to meet any elected official, but will not meet MB leaders outside of parliament.

The question then becomes, to what purpose? Simply to keep a channel open to what is, after all, the largest elected opposition group in Egypt? To send a signal to the regime that the US is not happy with the current state of things, notably the campaign against the Ikhwan, the continued imprisonment of Ayman Nour and the recent constitutional amendments? Or maybe I am reading too much into it and it's just a few curious congresspersons. It's worth noting, though, that the head of the delegation, David Price (D-NC) is the chairman of the House Democracy Assistance Commission (and a former political scientist at Duke University). Part of what that commission does is help "emerging democracies" develop better parliamentary practice and infrastructure.