The Obama administration is defending its Thursday meetings with members of Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamist political party. Officials say the United States is engaging with a variety of Egypt’s emerging political actors.
White House Press Secretary Jay Carney says representatives of the Muslim Brotherhood met with mid-level officials from the U.S. National Security Council.
On Wednesday, he described the officials in the meeting as "low-level."
Carney told reporters on Thursday that it is important for the administration to meet with many Egyptian political groups, as the country’s political situation evolves after last year’s overthrow of President Hosni Mubarak.
"In the aftermath of Egypt's revolution, we have broadened our engagement to include new and emerging political parties and actors. Because it is a fact that Egypt's political landscape has changed and the actors have become more diverse, and our engagement reflects that," Carney said.
Carney said he did not have information on the substance of the meetings. He also had no word on whether further meetings would be scheduled, but said he expected the dialogue to continue.
The president's spokesman gave assurances that great emphasis was placed on democracy and human rights.
"The Muslim Brotherhood will be a major player, and we are engaging because that is the appropriate and right thing to do. And we will judge all of the political actors in Egypt by their actions, by their commitment to democracy and democratic processes and protection of civil rights," Carney said.
The Muslim Brotherhood is one of five Middle Eastern Islamist political parties taking part in meetings with U.S. officials in Washington as well as a conference organized by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
Marina Ottaway, a Middle East expert at the Endowment, who helped to organize the conference, says U.S. officials are trying to learn more about the Brotherhood.
"Until the overthrow of Mubarak, the United States had an expressed policy of not talking to the Muslim Brotherhood because the Egyptian government was opposed to talking to the Muslim Brotherhood. So it is only in the last few months, essentially, that the United States has started talking to the Muslim Brothers," she said.
Shibley Telhami is the Anwar Sadat Professor for Peace and Development at the University of Maryland. He says the Muslim Brotherhood is trying to reassure officials in Washington that it shares their commitment to democracy, civil rights and stability.
"There is a recognition across the board in the U.S., and this really is across the Republican-Democrat [U.S. political] divide, and that is that Egypt is very important for the U.S. It has been an anchor of American foreign policy in the Middle East. The stability of the Egyptian-Israeli peace agreement is so important," Telhami said.
Telhami says that another reason U.S. officials have decided to talk to the Muslim Brotherhood is the rise of Egypt’s more conservative Islamist groups.
"To everyone’s surprise, the threat to the Muslim Brotherhood ended up being less from the liberals and more from the more conservative Salafis, including their presidential candidate, who is doing far better than anyone would have expected a few weeks ago. And so, in that sense, the Muslim Brotherhood looks a little bit more moderate, I think," Telhami said.
Meanwhile, Egypt’s presidential election commission has disqualified one Islamist candidate because his mother was an American citizen. Hazem Abu Ismail, a lawyer and preacher, was disqualified under a law that says candidates, their spouses and parents must hold only Egyptian citizenship.
Ismail used anti-U.S. rhetoric in his campaign speeches, and his departure from the race is expected to benefit the Muslim Brotherhood.