The organization must reject violence and recognize democratic goals if the U.S. is to be comfortable with it taking part in the government, the White House said. But by even setting conditions for the involvement of such nonsecular groups, the administration took a surprise step in the midst of the crisis that has enveloped Egypt for the last week.
The statement was an acknowledgment that any popularly accepted new government will probably include groups that are not considered friendly to U.S. interests, and was a signal that the White House is prepared for that probability after 30 years of reliable relations with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.
Monday's statement was a "pretty clear sign that the U.S. isn't going to advocate a narrow form of pluralism, but a broad one," said Robert Malley, a Mideast peace negotiator in the Clinton administration. U.S. officials have previously pressed for broader participation in Egypt's government.
The George W. Bush administration pushed Mubarak for democratic reforms, but a statement in 2005 by then-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice did not specifically address a role for Islamists.
"This is different," said Malley, now with the International Crisis Group. "It has a real political edge and political meaning."
White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said that a reformed government "has to include a whole host of important nonsecular actors that give Egypt a strong chance to continue to be [a] stable and reliable partner."
Gibbs said the U.S. government has had no contact with the Muslim Brotherhood because of questions over its commitment to the rule of law, democracy and nonviolence. But the group is not listed on U.S. terrorism lists, as the militant Hamas and Hezbollah organizations are.
Gibbs' remarks came after a White House meeting at which administration officials briefed outside Middle East experts, leaving some of the participants with the impression that the administration was not counting on the 82-year-old Mubarak remaining in power.
The Muslim Brotherhood is the largest and best-organized Egyptian opposition group, with an estimated 600,000 members, many of them educated, middle-class men. It has formally disavowed terrorism and violence, but its inclusion in any government would probably be deeply controversial among U.S. allies and especially in Israel, because the group advocates tearing up Egypt's peace treaty with the Jewish state.
Its members run for elective office as independents. It won 20% of the seats in parliament in 2005. But in elections last November, Brotherhood members didn't win a single seat in balloting that was surrounded by allegations of fraud.
In addition to its political efforts, the Muslim Brotherhood runs social and economic programs that help fill the gaps in Egypt's public services. It rejects the possibility of a woman or a Christian as president of Egypt, and would press for stricter adherence to Islamic codes.
U.S. conservatives such as former House Speaker Newt Gingrich have warned about its rise, and many draw comparisons to the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran. But others say fears of the Brotherhood, which has been suppressed for decades by the Egyptian government, are overstated.
Mohamed ElBaradei, the Nobel Peace Prize winner and former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, who has become the leading symbol of the effort to oust Mubarak, has said the group poses no threat. The Muslim Brotherhood on Sunday announced its support for ElBaradei as a transitional president if Mubarak was toppled.
Earlier Monday, the White House called more than a dozen Middle East experts to talk through the unfolding crisis. Some participants came away from the meeting with a sense that the White House was not insisting that Mubarak be part of a revamped Egyptian government.
Many of the experts gathered in the Roosevelt Room told three White House National Security Council officials that Mubarak has to go. They said the White House needs to give a clearer sense of what it means when it demands "reform" in Egypt's government.
"We stressed that it would be useful for them to be more explicit about the end state they are urging for the Egyptian government," said Tom Malinowski, Washington director for Human Rights Watch. "The fear that some of us have is that when men like [new Egyptian Vice President Omar] Suleiman hear words like 'orderly transition' and 'reform,' they may not define them in the same way that President Obama defines them."
The experts also urged that Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, one of the main presidential surrogates on the crisis, go further than to call on Mubarak to engage in a "dialogue" with the opposition.
"One thing we stressed to them is that 'dialogue' is not the right concept here," Malinowski said. "What's needed is a negotiation leading to a political transition."
A consensus of the experts was that Egypt's future could not include Mubarak, according to people in attendance.
The National Security Council officials — Ben Rhodes, Samantha Power and Daniel Shapiro — were reluctant to discuss Mubarak's fate. The White House has settled on the message that it is up to Egyptians to choose their government and that the U.S. should not be seen as picking the country's leaders.
Speaking of the three officials, Brian Katulis of the Center for American Progress said: "They can see the situation on the ground doesn't look very good for Mubarak. But I don't think they're going to come out against him."