Today the State Department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research will host a meeting with other representatives of the intelligence community to discuss opening more formal channels to the brothers. Earlier this year, the National Intelligence Council received a paper it had commissioned on the history of the Muslim Brotherhood by a scholar at the Nixon Center, Robert Leiken, who is invited to the State Department meeting today to present the case for engagement. On April 7, congressional leaders such as Rep. Steny Hoyer of Maryland, the Democratic whip, attended a reception where some representatives of the brothers were present. The reception was hosted at the residence in Cairo of the American ambassador to Egypt, Francis Ricciardone, a decision that indicates a change in policy.I personally think Leiken has a tendency to put the various Muslim Brotherhoods in the same basket. Whatever the links between them, they are clearly separate entities with local leaderships and warrant different approaches from the US. For instance, from a practical standpoint the US is forced to deal with the MB in Iraq, and from a political one engaging the Syrian MB makes sense if one is pursuing a policy of regime change in Damascus, particularly as exile Syrian groups have relationships with the Syrian MB. In Egypt, the situation is quite different: engagement with the MB has been extremely cautious, restricted to parliamentarians and is subject to close scrutiny from a regime that is close to Washington. In Palestine, engagement with Hamas is left to countries like Egypt since dealing with Hamas directly would contravene every ideological tenet the Bush administration holds dear, and presumably anger their neocon friends.
The National Security Council and State Department already meet indirectly with the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood through discussions with a new Syrian opposition group created in 2006 known as the National Salvation Front. Meanwhile, Iraq's vice president, Tariq al-Hashemi, is a leader of Iraq's chapter of the Muslim Brotherhood. His party, known as the Iraqi Islamic Party, has played a role in the Iraqi government since it was invited to join the Iraqi Governing Council in 2003.
These developments, in light of Hamas's control of Gaza, suggest that President Bush — who has been careful to distinguish the war on terror from a war on Islam — has done more than any of his predecessors to accept the movement fighting for the merger of mosque and state in the Middle East.
However, there are signs that the Egyptian MB can be useful: last week, reports emerged that Fatah's strongman in Gaza and US-Israeli tool Muhammad Dahlan (who is blamed even by his Egyptian intelligence handlers for starting the recent violence in Gaza) had sent out an emissary to MB Supreme Guide Muhammad Akef, asking him to reach out to Hamas. The Egyptian intelligence services have used Akef's good offices with Hamas for a while now, it seems, and despite the ongoing crackdown against the MB domestically, the regime realizes they can be useful (and perhaps the MB hopes to win some lenience in return), even if the MB's official support for the Hamas government clashes with Egypt's decision to only recognize the Fatah-backked Fayyad government in the West Bank (and Egypt's help in making sure Hamas leaders cannot leave Gaza and other forms of coordination of the blockade with the Israelis, even if some Israelis are unhappy.)
It's also worthwhile noting that Hamas is making an attempt to get the US to engage directly with them -- note that Ismail Haniyeh's advisor Ahmed Youssef had op-eds in both the NYT and WaPo yesterday advocating engagement and defending Hamas' democratic credentials. Hamas has also been making noise about negotiating the release of of BBC journalist Alan Johnston (what were they waiting for, anyway?)
In the context of this debate about engaging the various Muslim Brotherhoods, it's worth highlighting that Human Rights Watch has put up interviews of Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood detainees who were imprisoned and tortured by the Egyptian security services. It's a novel and unusual attempt by an establishment institution to put a human face on the MB, which tends not to make front-page news when its members are (routinely) arrested and mistreated. HRW is not only defending their human rights, but also the MB's freedom of association and expression, which is bound to make many in Cairo (and not just in government) unhappy. The full list of interviews is on the page linked above, but here's a YouTube version of the interview with Mahmoud Izzat, the Secretary-General of the MB, recalling the brutal 1965 wave of arrests, which was widely credited for radicalizing a part of the MB and creating the spinoff groups that would become Islamic Jihad, and ultimately join al-Qaeda.