Washington D.C, Asharq Al-Awsat- Despite what may be considered a ‘stalling’ in the interactive activities between the Americans and the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) members in the region by virtue of the Iraqi war (2003), there still remain talks between America and the Brotherhood in various capitals whenever the need arises or interests dictate. The US claims to have ‘fixed standards’ for dealing with Islamic organizations in the region – but the picture is more elaborate and involved. Essentially, there are five criteria that define the relationship with such organizations:
1- Their state of legitimacy in their native counties
2- Their position on the US State Department list of Foreign Terrorist Organizations
3- Their agenda and ideological discourse
4- Their actions on the ground
5- Interests resulting from engaging in dialogue with the organizations in question
However, in political practice, these standards ravel to the point where they enter ‘grey’ domain. According to what American officials, both current and former, have revealed to Asharq Al-Awsat, the American administration does not hold talks with groups that are legally banned, which is not entirely true as it is known that the past two years have seen unofficial and unannounced meetings between US officials and the MB group in Syria, despite Damascus’ refusal to recognize the Brotherhood in Syria as a legitimate organization. While it is assumed that the legal recognition is amongst the requisite standards for establishing a relationship with Washington, there remain two important exceptions: Hamas in Palestine and Hezbollah in Lebanon, which despite being present on the US terrorist list, America still refuses to engage in dialogue with them even though they are both legitimate groups in their native countries.
And while talks between the Americans and Jordan’s Islamic Action Front (IAF) [Jabhat al Amal al Islami, the political wing of the MB in Jordan] are supposedly strong by reason of their legitimacy and their absence from the terrorist list, it is not the case, as indicated by an American official. Agreeing to speak on condition of anonymity, the official told Asharq Al-Awsat that this was because the IAF, despite not advocating violence directly, like its Egyptian counterpart; it too supported suicide-bombing operations that the Palestinians execute in Israel. As a consequence, the official said that the US relationship with Jordan’s MB is one of the “weakest” among the legitimate organizations in the region with which Washington has direct relations.
In contrast is Morocco’s Justice and Development party [PJD – Parti de la Justice et du Développement], with which Washington has a good relationship and which conforms to the five aforementioned standards. Perhaps the best way to describe the degree of accord in the relationship between the Americans and the PJD, is what was stated by Marina Ottaway, director of the Middle East Program and senior associate in the Democracy and Rule of Law Project at the Carnegie Endowment when she said that many non-Islamic political activists in Morocco had told her on her latest visit that Washington wants the PJD to govern Morocco. Ottaway indicated that it may not be entirely accurate.
Despite the majority of American officials and researchers that Asharq Al-Awsat interviewed stressing the importance of the legitimacy factor in determining the ability to hold talks with these Islamic organizations, illegitimacy does not mean the ‘severance of relations’. Regarding this matter, a US official told Asharq Al-Awsat that their clear policies state that banned groups are not to be dealt with, he cited the MB in Egypt as an example and said that in order to avoid awkward situations or stir up sensitivities the organization is not dealt with in an official manner or capacity. He added that meetings may be held between Egyptian MPs who are affiliated to the MB or figures who are close to the group on an individual basis but not as members of the MB. He also clarified that the US administration does not associate between the Brotherhood groups in Kuwait, Egypt, Jordan or Morocco and that the US had previously engaged in talks with the Brotherhood in Kuwait, Egypt, Jordan and Morocco and that the members of these groups had indeed met with US officials, but that opening dialogue depended on certain issues and particular interests.
The official explained that aside from the legitimacy element, the presence or absence of a given group on the US State Department list of Foreign Terrorist Organizations similarly plays a defining role in dialogue with the Islamists, such as Hamas and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad with whom no dialogue exists. The same applies to the armed groups that engage in violence or who support it elsewhere.
The outcome of the interviews conducted by Asharq Al-Awsat revealed that the
content and understanding of these proposed standards when dealing with the agendas and ideologies of Islamic organizations have two ceilings: there are some who view issues such as renouncing violence, tolerating diversity and respecting public freedoms to be the measure by which to judge Islamic organizations in order to determine the likelihood of establishing dialogue with them, while others view that the ceiling must be raised to include issues such as the group in question’s stance on the rights of women, religious- and racial- minorities, and the application of Shariah penalties.
Dennis Ross, formerly the special Middle East coordinator and envoy during Bill Clinton time in office, adopts the first basic approach; he sees that the renunciation of violence should be the point of entry which would enable dialogue with the external world. He told Asharq Al-Awsat that in all matters related to dialogue, the definitive factor is the denouncing violence as a means to achieve political goals. He added that if the MB were to make that announcement that his position towards them would change but that as long as violence comprised a part of their ideology that there would be little hope for dialogue, or any other relationship to be established for that matter. He said that he believed dealing with such groups is wrong because it sends out a message that the US somehow feels, in some way or another, that they are the future.
Ross stressed that he preferred to establish dialogue with those who possess a vision about the future of the Middle East, one that is founded on economic prosperity, tolerance and the acceptance of diversity. He continued to say that the majority of Muslims in the Middle East did not want a world steeped in violence and animosity and that they wanted a better life for themselves. He stated that although perhaps these organizations often criticize the US on a number of aspects that this fact does not make partnership impossible. It is not necessary that they should agree with the US on everything as it is not infallible but that there must be political regulations accepted by all, he said. According to Ross, the use of violence for political ends is not a legitimate method to achieve political goals because it means that you possess the ability to decide that you are right while all else is wrong and thus justify imposing your way on others. There are some who criticize American policy worldwide because they think that we want to impose our way on all, he said, adding that he believed that it was an erroneous assumption because one cannot enforce their ways on others.
However, current officials in the US administration admit that the picture is greyer than that and say that the obscure areas between the black and the white provoke much misunderstandings and ambiguity. According to one senior official the positions and viewpoints towards the Islamic organizations vary. He told Asharq Al-Awsat that there are no clear factors to differentiate between moderate and extremist Islamic groups and that there were figures in the administration who adopted a more rigid approach towards the Islamists while others were less rigid, and that it was also pending the situation of the country in question. He stated that in the case where the choice was between the MB party in a particular country or a bloodthirsty takfiri [Muslims holding fellow Muslims to be infidels] group that they would choose the former although they may not agree with the MB’s political ideas. So far, he said, there is still no broad unanimity within the US administration regarding the Islamists in the Arab world. He questioned the possibility for there to be major participation by the citizens of a given country and whether other Islamic parties would allow for this participation. He emphasized that their objective was for the region to have complete freedom for all, including the leftists and the secularists whom the Islamists consider disbelievers.
The senior official who agreed to be interviewed on condition of anonymity said the interaction between the US administration and the MB takes place on an individual basis, adding that he speaks from experience since he occupied a diplomatic post in Jordan some years ago and that they had normal relations and contact with the IAF and dealt with it as they did with other political parties despite the fact that it had a definite position against the US, but that there was normal communication between the two sides. He said that he had personally visited the IAF’s newspaper office [the weekly Islamist Al Sabil newspaper] and that he used to have discussions with the people working there. He added that the situation is different in Egypt as there is delicacy surrounding the US’s relationship with the MB by reason of the party’s illegitimacy in the country.
There is a conviction that we deal with Brotherhood organizations in the region as a single broad position, he explained, refuting it by saying that these organizations are dealt with in accordance to several criteria. The first of which is the state and the political situation in each given state. He added that the proof of this was that the relations with Jordan’s MB were normal, while issues existed with their Egyptian counterparts – which applies to all countries where the MB is banned as an organization of a political party, such as Tunis or Syria. He said that while he was in Syria he knew various Islamists but did not know whether or not they were affiliated to the Brotherhood, who were then, as they still are, an illegitimate organization. Another exception to the rule is the Brotherhood in Iraq where there is significant communication and deliberations between Americans and the MB members who participate in Iraq’s present government and who also considerably engage in civil life – Iraq’s MB group art the only ones who have their own television channel, Baghdad satellite channel.
The US senior official stated that in their view and dealings with the Islamists, the second factor is these groups’ agendas regarding democracy. We are not against the Islamists as such, neither are we against the Muslim Brotherhood, he said. He added that the question was one about the rules of participation and that Washington does not regard the presence of the MB in politics or political life to be the problem, whether in Egypt, Jordan, or elsewhere, in fact it views it as a positive thing because we want everyone to participate. The main question is: do the rules of the game allow for the equal participation of concerned parties, Islamists and secularists, liberals and leftists? Or does the Islamic trend manipulate the rules of the game to practice a form of blackmail and extortion against those not affiliated to it? To Washington, this formulates the important question, a more important one than the existence of Islamists or the lack thereof, he said.
The official revealed that they were aware that the Islamists have a strong public appeal on the Arab street for a number of different reasons, among them the fact that they have an advantage by not being the governments in these countries. Regarding the grey areas in dealing with the MB organizations in the region, the senior official cited Hamas as a good example and said that they had no problem with the party’s participation as a civil political organization. Likewise, he said they had no problem with Hezbollah’s participation as a civil party that has a presence in civil life and that the problem was that they considered Hamas a terrorist organization that has practiced – and will continue to practice – terrorism.
He added: This was the former American stance regarding the Palestinian elections; if Hamas had decided its participation would be as a political party rather than an oppositional organization then there would be no problem. He explained that this did not mean that they supported the ideologies of Islamists in Palestine and that the problem was the use of violence, furthermore adding that they were not against Hamas in principle. He added that they were not sympathetic to communist ideals because fundamentally they were against communism but Washington had no issues with the participation of communist parties in the Arab world or anywhere else. The same applies to the Islamists, he said, differentiating between the use of violence on the one hand, and the belief in religious or conservative ideas in politics on the other. He stated that the latter was the citizens’ choice and that the US does not interfere in this matter.
Marina Ottaway, director of the Middle East Program and renowned researcher at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace shares a similar view, she told Asharq Al-Awsat that the official position that the US administration adopts in dealing with Islamists in the region is that they are subject to the laws of the countries in which they have a presence. If the Islamic organizations are not banned in their countries of origin, the US administration sees no problem in contacting them and establishing relations, she said. Citing Morocco’s PJD as an example, which is recognized by the US, she added that leaders from the party had been invited to the American embassy in Morocco to mark the occasion of America’s independence anniversary on the 4th of July.
She negated claims by political activists in Morocco who were not affiliated to Islamic organizations that the PJD was touted as the next party to come to power and added that the PJD is viewed as moderate and legitimate, which is why America converses with it, she said. Although the IAF is a legitimate party that is officially registered in Jordan, Ottaway said that the US did not favor it and yet it still held talks with it as it does with Islamic organizations in Iraq, such as the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), led by Abdulaziz al Hakim or any other Sunni or Shia organization that is legally authorized to operate. She explained that the official position is that if an organization is legally registered, it is contacted and dialogue is established. Like US officials, Ottaway states that Palestine’s Hamas and Lebanon’s Hezbollah are the exceptions to the rule as their respective situations are complicated. The result is that you have two legitimate parties that the US does not recognize; in the case if Hamas the reason being its refusal to recognize the state of Israel while in the case of Hezbollah, the main reason is the fact that it is backed by Syria and Iran, which connotes a lot more than just being a religious party. She affirmed that the US only deals with Egypt’s MB on an individual basis, the ‘independent MPs’ affiliated to the party since it is officially banned. Ottaway added that to the best of her knowledge, American diplomats have not held talks with Egyptian MPs affiliated to the MB.
Although American officials stress that Washington deals with the MB presence in the region on an individual basis so that the policies that apply to one country may not apply to another, they emphasize that the US has its eyes on the regional intra-relationships between the various MB organization groups worldwide.