With PowerPoint presentations and political promises, Egypt’s influential Muslim Brotherhood made its U.S. diplomatic debut this week hoping to persuade Washington that the Islamist group is committed to democracy and rule of law.
A delegation from the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), the political wing of the once-banned Islamist movement, has been making the Washington rounds talking to officials and think tank experts about their growing role as Egypt heads toward presidential elections.
“We are here to start building bridges of understanding with the United States,” Sondos Asem, a member of the party’s foreign relations committee and editor of its official English language website, said at a forum at Georgetown University in Washington.
“We acknowledge the very important role of the United States in the world and we would like our relations with the United States to be better than before.”
The Muslim Brotherhood, which was founded in 1928 and seeks to promote its conservative vision of Islam in society, has made dramatic gains since a popular uprising toppled President Hosni Mubarak last year and launched Egypt on an unpredictable political course.
The United States has broadened its engagement with the group but is moving cautiously amid widespread skepticism over its aims, particularly after the FJP announced it would field a candidate for presidential elections in May despite an earlier pledge to stay out of the race..
The FJP candidate, Khairat al-Shater, said in comments reported on Wednesday that introducing sharia law would be his “first and final objective,” but the FJP group in Washington sought to dismissed fears this meant they aimed to establish an Islamic theocracy.
Abdul Mawgoud Dardery, an FJP lawmaker from Luxor, said the party was dedicated to the principle of a “civil state” and the objectives of sharia law rather than its specific practice.
“The principles are universal: freedom, human rights, justice for all. This is the priority of the Freedom and Justice Party,” he said at the Georgetown event.
White House spokesman Jay Carney said the Egyptian delegation had met with “low-level” officials at the National Security Council, and they were also expected to meet officials at the State Department.
“The Muslim Brotherhood will play a prominent role in Egypt’s life going forward,” Carney told reporters on Wednesday.
The FJP team took pains to appear both reasonable and flexible during their Washington visit, quoting both from the Koran and from the U.S. self-help manual “Seven Habits of Highly Effective People,” and depicting themselves as the true heirs of the uprising in Cairo’s Tahrir Square.
“We are seeking to fulfill the demands of the young people who revolted in Tahrir Square, and these demands are our priorities,” said Asem, who also manages the group's Twitter account.
At Georgetown University, the group used a PowerPoint presentation to detail plans to promote economic liberalization, political reform and social inclusiveness, and said the FJP was a moderate force that could strike a balance between secular activists and more hardline Islamist groups.
“The Freedom and Justice Party is taking the middle ground,” said Dardery, who in addition to his FJP role is also an adjunct professor at a Minnesota university.
“We have a tradition that needs to be respected, and this is where we start from, but we cannot ignore human civilization.”
Pressed by skeptical questioners on how the FJP would handle issues ranging from the social role of women to freedom of speech and religious choice, the FJP team stressed that the aim is a pluralistic society upholding universal rights.
Hussein al-Kazzaz, a Muslim Brotherhood advisor and former university professor, said the FJP was committed to broadening its support throughout Egyptian society and dispelling fears over its objectives.
“The party will be stable as long as the stands that it takes still make sense to the majority of the people,” he said. “I think people will start understanding what they see here once they get the facts.”