Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said Thursday that U.S. officials intend to build contacts with Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood, a sign of American concern that the conservative Islamic group is becoming one of the most important political forces in the post-Mubarak order.
Speaking to reporters in Budapest, Hungary, Clinton said that "given the changing political landscape in Egypt…it is in the interests of the United States to engage with all parties that are peaceful, and committed to nonviolence, that intend to compete for the parliament and the presidency."
The Obama administration has indicated since the uprising early this year that it sees a legitimate role for the group in Egyptian politics. On Jan. 31, then-White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said that a reformed Egyptian government had to "include a whole host of important non-secular actors that give Egypt a strong chance to continue to be [a] stable and reliable partner."
Clinton said Thursday that the Obama administration was "continuing the approach of limited contacts with the Muslim Brotherhood that have existed on and off for about five or six years."
Even so, the group's conservative ideological views have been a concern to many Israelis and their supporters in the United States, and word of the administration's plans may cause further unease. The group supports Palestinian armed resistance against Israel.
U.S. officials had intermittently been in contact with Muslim Brotherhood members, justifying it by saying that the individuals held other important roles, such as lawmakers or trade union leaders.
American officials recently have been reaching out widely in Egypt, hoping to increase influence among those likely to assume power in a turmoil-racked country that remains key to U.S. goals in the region.
In Cairo, Clinton's comments were widely interpreted as public recognition by the U.S. government of the Muslim Brotherhood's influence as Egypt's largest and best-organized political party since President Hosni Mubarak's ouster in February after nearly 30 years in power.
"It's significant for the U.S. to come out and make such a public statement" said Mustafa El Labbad, director of the Al Sharq Center for Regional and Strategic Studies in Cairo. "It's a formal recognition of the Muslim Brotherhood's influence in Egypt, and a boost for them."
Though Clinton described the administration's decision as "limited" and a continuation of earlier policy, Labbad said it nonetheless represented an expansion of policy. He said the United States apparently will now talk to all factions within the Muslim Brotherhood, not just those members who were elected to the parliament as independents in 2005.
Clinton said it was in the interest of the U.S. to deal with Egyptian parties committed to nonviolent politics. The once-banned Muslim Brotherhood, founded in Egypt in 1928 and now claiming more than 600,000 members, renounced violence years ago.
Dr. Mohamed Beltagui, a Muslim Brotherhood member and a former member of the parliament, said the party welcomed the U.S. overture.
"It is good to see the U.S. starting to properly read the political map in Egypt and the region by starting communication with a group that has its grass roots and popularity in the Egyptian street," Beltagui said. "We hope this will be a good start to changes in American policies in the Middle East."
Beltagui criticized the United States for having supported "autocratic regimes" in the Middle East, including Mubarak's, and for its close alliance with Israel.
Brotherhood members, running as independents because the party was banned, won 20% of the seats in the Egyptian parliament in 2005. Because of its strong organization and religious and political influence, the party is also expected to do well in parliamentary elections scheduled to be held in September.
The Brotherhood, which is running as the Freedom and Justice political party, has said it does not seek a parliamentary majority. Nor will it field a candidate for president in elections promised for December; the Brotherhood expelled Abdel Monem Aboul Fotouh, a member supported by disaffected youths, after Aboul Fotouh defied the party by announcing that he would run for president as an independent.
Analyst Labbad said Clinton's comments also sent a strong signal to Muslim Brotherhood members in Syria and Libya, long suppressed by those nations' repressive governments.
"It shows that the U.S. is not hostile to the idea of the Muslim Brotherhood sharing power in Syria or Libya," if the autocratic governments there are eventually overthrown by ongoing "Arab Spring" rebellions, Labbad said.
Human rights groups have expressed concern about Brotherhood statements that women or Christians could never become president of a Muslim country. In Egypt, the party has said it seeks a civil state based on Islamic principles, but some members have spoken of imposing Islamic Sharia law.
There was no immediate response from the Israeli government to Clinton's comments.
"We are examining the new situation but prefer not to make any comments for now," said a spokesman for the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
But Zvi Mazel, former Israeli ambassador to Egypt, said Clinton's announcement "grants the Muslim Brotherhood the legitimization of the international community."
Mazel called Brotherhood members "dangerous people," saying that they present a moderate face but maintain an extremist ideology.
"Israel was already worried" about the group, Mazel said. "Now it should worry a little bit more."
Richter reported from Washington and Zucchino from Cairo. News assistants Batsheva Sobelman in The Times' Jerusalem bureau and Amro Hassan in the Cairo bureau contributed to this report.