Representatives of Islamist political parties from several Arab countries are in Washington for a conference Thursday. On the sidelines, they are holding meetings with U.S. officials.
Representatives of Islamist parties in Egypt, Morocco, Jordan, Tunisia and Libya are in the U.S. capital, against a backdrop of Islamist party popularity in the Middle East and North Africa.
Marina Ottaway, a Middle East expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, helped to organize the visit, as well as Carnegie's conference, called "Islamists in Power."
Ottaway said Islamist parties are emerging as major players in Arab countries that have held elections in the past year. And, she says, they are not well known in Washington.
"Whether or not we like it, whether or not this is a good thing, we will be dealing with these parties for many, many years to come, and therefore it is very important that we all get to understand them better and to know them better," she said.
To that end, members of the delegations also are meeting with U.S. officials. Ottaway says the Carnegie Endowment did not arrange the meetings but did provide contact information to U.S. officials who approached the organization.
White House Press Secretary Jay Carney says members of the Muslim Brotherhood met with lower level officials of the National Security Council.
"It is a matter of fact that the Muslim Brotherhood will play a prominent role in Egypt's political life going forward," he said.
Carney also noted that U.S. Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham met with members of the Muslim Brotherhood when they visited Egypt in February.
The United States and Egypt are traditional allies, but the relationship was strained when Cairo cracked down on non-governmental organizations. Earlier this year, Egypt refused to allow several U.S. citizens to leave the country. The heightened tension even put $1.3 billion in U.S. aid to Egypt in question, but the U.S. decided to approve the funding last month.
At least one newspaper has referred to the Islamists' sideline meetings as a "charm offensive." Ottaway says that is a fair characterization only in the case of the Muslim Brotherhood. She says, of the five groups invited to the conference, the Muslim Brotherhood opted to send additional representatives at its own expense, and the Brotherhood set up appointments and appearances on its own.
"I think they made a deliberate decision that if they were going to come to the United States, they would really go all out to make their presence felt," Ottaway said.
Mohamed Gaair works in the public relations division of the Muslim Brotherhood in Libya. He spoke to Alhurra at the U.S. State Department after members of the delegation met with Deputy Secretary of State William Burns.
Gaair said they discussed the importance of respecting universal principals such as human rights.
According to Gaair, U.S. and Islamist officials alike agreed that the Islamists respect democracy and multiple political parties.
Carnegie's Marina Ottaway says the Islamist parties visiting Washington are separate entities, not one large, unified political bloc. She adds that Islamist parties in various countries have surprisingly little contact with one another.
"In other words, we always were surprised that when we talked, for example, to the Moroccans, we knew more than they did about what the Egyptians were doing, or vice versa," Ottaway said.
Delegates attending the Carnegie-hosted conference Thursday are discussing ways to build governments, write constitutions and face economic challenges.
Representatives include members of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood in Libya, the Party for Justice and Development in Morocco, Ennahda in Tunisia and the Islamic Action Front in Jordan.