Road towards US-Brotherhood friendship trodden long before Morsi's election

Dina Ezzat, Tuesday 17 Jul 2012

Western and Egyptian sources deny there was any American intervention to ensure Morsi's electoral victory, and, in any case, the US knew long before the revolution the Brotherhood are a force to deal with in Egypt

John Kerry
John Kerry and US Ambassador Anne Patterson visit the Freedom and Justice Party headquarters in 2011 - in attendance then-FJP head Mohamed Morsi, Speaker of dissolved parliament Saad El-Katatni (Photo: Ikhwanonline)

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was appreciative of her recent meeting with President Mohamed Morsi, Egypt's first ever freely elected, civilian and above all Muslim Brotherhood president.

"She seemed to have found him to be business-like, serious and realistic," said a Cairo-based western source who wished to remain anonymous.

According to this and a couple of other sources, both western and Egyptian, who spoke to Ahram Online less than two days after Clinton had her first encounter with Egypt's new president on Saturday at the presidential palace in Heliopolis, the mesaage that Clinton broadcast to the public is that her encounter with Morsi could be the beginning of a constructive and solid relationship.

Constructive was indeed the very word that Clinton used to qualify her talks with Morsi in a press conference, which she held at the presidential palace with her Egyptian counterpart Mohamed Kamel Amr following a 90-minute talk with Morsi.

Constructive is also the word that western diplomats use to qualify the kind of relationship they are currently building with the Muslim Brotherhood as the rulers of Egypt and a possible influential force across many countries in North Africa and above all in Gaza.

"Of course, this relationship did not start today; I mean over the past few years the Americans have had more than just simple or superficial talks with the Muslim Brotherhood," said an Egyptian diplomat who served in the US capital a few years ago.

According to this diplomat, when the Americans were then talking to the Muslim Brotherhood in Cairo and elsewhere, they still had no idea that in 2012 a member of the Islamist organisation would be the president of Egypt.

"They were sure, and it really was the case, that the Muslim Brotherhood are the only serious political opposition that they should reconcile with, and they knew that you cannot overlook them, even when the regime of [ousted president Hosni] Mubarak was crushing the Muslim Brotherhood day in and day out."

Following the revolution, Egyptian and American sources alike say that contacts between the US and the Muslim Brotherhood were upgraded and intensified. The channels for talks were no longer constrained to very few official meetings and several think-tank set ups. The US embassy in Egypt at the time was directly calling leading names in the Muslim Brotherhood for talks and meetings.

The real breakthrough in the relations between the Muslim Brotherhood and the US, according to Brotherhood sources, was when one of their delegations visited the US last summer. The American administration and Congress members had direct and first-hand encounters with Muslim Brotherhood members in meetings on economics and politics.

As a Washington-based Egyptian revealed: "There they were, in their blue suits, comfortably discussing free market economy versus social justice."

Following the landslide victory that the Muslim Brotherhood's political arm, the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) achieved in the parliamentary elections seven months ago, the meetings took on a whole new profile. They became intense, detailed and high-level.

Western diplomats in Cairo have endless stories to share about the encounters between the American ambassador in Cairo and Khairat El-Shater, the powerful deputy supreme-guide of the Muslim Brotherhood, who was the group's first choice for a presidential candidate, had it not been for legal complications related to the short length between his release from imprisonment under Mubarak and the beginning of the presidential race.

"El-Shater impresses; you Egyptians might find him enigmatic and somehow scary but for a western diplomat who wants to have direct talk about how things work and how things would work in Egypt he is quite impressive," said another Cairo-based western diplomat.

Less than one month before the beginning of the presidential elections' first round on 23 May, the US embassy and other western embassies in Egypt were of the opinion that the Brotherhood candidate had a very good chance of making it to the top job in Egypt. And when most opinion polls were suggesting that Egypt's next president would be either Amr Moussa, former Arab League secretary general, or Abdel-Moneim Aboul-Fotouh, an ex-Muslim Brotherhood leader, senior American and other western diplomats were keeping a close eye on the Muslim Brotherhood candidate and were explicitly sharing their assessment that Morsi, who joined the presidential race at the eleventh hour as a substitute for El-Shater, was on a path to the presidential seat.

During this time, Morsi, nominated in his capacity as the head of the FJP, was not the direct subject of Western focus. It was rather El-Shater and his number two associate Hassen Malek, who is now being rumoured as a possible minister of finance and vice prime minister.

These two men offered the Americans, as they did to every other Western capital, sufficient reassurances: no violation of the peace treaty with Israel; no interruption of economic cooperation between Egyptian businessmen and their Israeli counterparts; no uncalculated support to Hamas in Gaza; and no rushed relations with Iran. Other assurances included some commitments related to the overall civil nature of Egypt and the rights of minorities, especially Copts in Egypt.

"Ideally, it seemed to me that the Americans would have wanted to see Shafiq [Morsi's opponent in the second round of presidential elections] as president, but they knew that this would not go down well with the revolutionary forces for the most part, and they could see that the Muslim Brotherhood was parting from, to an extent, the political arrogance that befell them following their dominance in the parliamentary elections. And they felt that Washington was ready to deal with a Muslim Brotherhood president of Egypt," said an Egyptian diplomat in Washington.

This diplomat, and sources close to the Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF), categorically deny that there was an American intervention behind the announcement of Morsi as the winner of the presidential elections.

"Not true at all. The real winner would have been announced anyway and there was no attempt to impose Shafiq; Shafiq could have been announced president if it were not for his campaign's failure to prove the rigging of blocs of Morsi's ballots,"said one of the sources close to the SCAF.

And according to the Washington-based Egyptian diplomat: "All that the Americans said at the time is that they believe that the announcement of the result should not be subjected to any political preference."

The US willingness to accept a Brotherhood president, according to concerned Egyptian officials, is not about a change of heart on the side of Washington regarding political Islam, but is about an applied sense of realism that prompts the American administration to deal with the unstoppable reality of the rise, temporary or not, of political Islamic movements in the Arab world, especially in Egypt where the Muslim Brotherhood has been active for over 80 years.

This realism would prompt the US administration and some quarters in Congress to support Morsi's presidency by offering economic assistance and by paying lip service to his right to assume full presidential prerogatives, says Diaa Rashwan, director of Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies. It would not, Rashwan adds, put Washington on a collision course with the SCAF; nor would it prompt a shift of US loyalties from the liberal to the Islamist quarters.

"The Americans would acknowledge Morsi's presidency, and would support it, but they would not at all compromise their traditional alliances with the military or the liberals – that is out of the question," Rashwan insisted.

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