The head of the political arm of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood on Wednesday hailed US-Egyptian ties during talks with the US State Department’s number two, but also said they must be “balanced.”
The meeting with Deputy Secretary of State William Burns at the Cairo headquarters of the Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) came at the end of marathon elections that propelled Islamist parties to centre stage.
Washington has reached out to the Brotherhood in a nod to the country’s new political reality, with Islamists poised to dominate the first parliament since a popular uprising ousted veteran president Hosni Mubarak in February.
FJP head Mohammed Mursi said his party “believes in the importance of US-Egyptian relations,” but stressed that ties between the two nations “must be balanced,” in a statement issued after the talks.
Mursi “welcomed” Burns’s visit and “asked that the United States review its policies… in line with the (aspirations) of the Arab Spring” uprisings that brought down autocratic regimes in Egypt, Libya and Tunisia.
He also called on Washington to adopt a “positive position concerning Arab and Muslim causes,” saying its policies in the past were “biased and not in its interest,” an apparent allusion to strong US support for Israel.
In Washington, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said Burns was sounding out the Brotherhood’s views amid concerns about its attitude toward women, minority Christians and Egypt’s 1979 peace treaty with Israel.
“It was an opportunity to hear from them and to reinforce our expectations that all the major parties will support human rights, tolerance, rights of women and will also uphold Egypt’s existing international obligations,” Nuland said.
Nuland said Burns’s failure to meet with representatives from the more hardline Al-Nur party, who claim to be just behind the FJP in the elections, should not be considered a snub.
“It was not a matter of excluding them. He was not able to meet with all of the parties,” Nuland said, adding that US embassy staff did meet with Al-Nur, A Salafi group that believes in the strict implementation of sharia law.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said before the polls that the United States had pursued “limited contacts” with the Brotherhood as Washington was “re-engaging in” a six-year-old policy in light of Egypt’s political changes.
Wednesday’s meeting comes as Egyptians voted in the final phase of staggered elections to elect a lower house of parliament. Polls closed at 1700 GMT.
Egypt’s two main Islamist parties have obtained a crushing lead in the seats declared so far, reflecting a regional trend since Arab Spring uprisings overthrew secular authoritarian regimes.
The Brotherhood, Egypt’s best organised political movement, was widely expected to triumph in the polls through the FJP.
But the surge by Al-Nur and the high visibility of Salafi movements have raised fears among increasingly marginalised liberals about civil liberties and religious freedom.
Burns also met Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, head of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) which took power when Mubarak was ousted.
The SCAF has repeatedly pointed to the elections as proof of its intention to hand the reins to a civilian government.
But the vote has exposed a deepening rift among Egyptians. Some see them as the first step to democratic rule, while others say the new parliament — whose function remains unclear — leaves control in the hands of the military.
The SCAF has faced growing outrage over the actions of the security forces against demonstrators calling for an immediate transition to civilian rule, which have resulted in dozens of deaths.
Nuland said Burns also tackled a US dispute with Egypt over Cairo’s crackdown last month on 17 offices of local and international rights organisations, including US election monitoring groups.
She said he met with members of the National Democratic Institute, the International Republican Institute and Freedom House — whose offices were raided — as well as delegates from Egyptian non-government organisations.
The US government is demanding the Egyptian government return seized property and allow the organisations to work unhindered.
Nuland said Burns “pushed hard with the government to try to resolve the remaining problems, and we do think we are making some headway, but we have not yet resolved all the issues.”