The political ascent of Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood has created some unease in Washington, and in an attempt to counter that, the group dispatched a delegation to the U.S. capital this week for meetings that range from administration officials to think tanks and universities.
The Brotherhood has rapidly evolved into a powerful political force since former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak was ousted from power in February of last year.
Since then, the Brotherhood has won parliamentary elections and just last week announced that it would be fielding a presidential candidate, despite saying previously that it wouldn't do so.
The delegation from the Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party, which includes three men and a woman, is on something of a charm offensive. But at an event Thursday at Georgetown University, the group was pressed on its vision for Egypt's future.
"It's not necessarily just a PR campaign, but mainly we would like to get to know one another more," said Dr. Abdul Mawgoud Dardery, a lawmaker who is part of the delegation. He said it's "very important to understand the American concerns and they understand our aspirations as Egyptians, after the Egyptian revolution."
The delegation drew a full house at Georgetown for a program titled, "To Know One Another." The Brotherhood members talked about restoring dignity and hope to the Egyptian people, providing better services and promoting democracy.
Delegation Is Pressed For Details
The group fielded questions for well over an hour as members of the audience tried to nail down the Brotherhood's stand on issues such as women's rights, religious minorities and the role of Islam in government.
"Our interest really is looking at what's best for the Egyptian people," said delegation member Khaled al-Qazzaz. "We evaluate things based on what is good for Egypt in the short term and in the long term."
But audience members continued to press the Islamist group on certain issues.
One asked why the Brotherhood said it wouldn't have a presidential candidate and then changed its mind.
Two members of the delegation said the decision came after much discussion. The Brotherhood selected Khairat el-Shater, a prominent businessman who is already considered to be a strong candidate for the election planned for next month.
Michele Dunne, the director of the Rafik Hariri Center at the Atlantic Council says the Muslim Brotherhood's flip-flopping is part of the evolution of a group that was banned for so many years. But Dunne says it bears watching, especially as it seeks to rewrite the constitution and consolidate power.
"I hope that in these conversations in Washington this week, these members of the Muslim Brotherhood will hear from American officials about thinking about how they should conduct themselves in power," Dunne said. "In other words, just because you have the majority doesn't mean that you should dominate the process so utterly."
Concern Over Peace Treaty
Steven Cook, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, says U.S. officials also need to listen carefully to what the Brotherhood's delegation is saying. He says the Islamist group has been short on detail during its events this week.
"In the ambiguous answers to some of the questions, you got a sense of how things might change on the U.S.-Egyptian front, whether it's related to Egypt-Israel relations or whether it's just on the bilateral relationship," Cook says.
He says if the Muslim Brotherhood holds power, Egypt is less likely to be as cooperative with the U.S. as it was during the Mubarak era. This could have an impact on regional security. Of particular concern to Americans and Israelis is how a new Egyptian government will approach the 1979 peace treaty between Egypt and Israel.
Although the Brotherhood has repeatedly said it will honor the agreement, Cook says the Brotherhood was savvy to send this particular group to the U.S. to make its case. They're fluent in English and comfortable speaking with Americans. Cook says it's unclear whether the delegation is representative of the broader group.
"They said many of the right things, or enough of the right things to make a good impression," he says. "They were convincing on a variety of issues."
But Cook adds that the U.S. needs to judge the Muslim Brotherhood not by what it says in the U.S. but by what it does back in Egypt.