By Arshad Mohammed
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The United States has decided to resume formal contacts with the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, a senior U.S. official said on Wednesday, in a step that reflects the Islamist group's growing political weight but that is almost certain to upset Israel and its U.S. backers.
"The political landscape in Egypt has changed, and is changing," said the senior official, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "It is in our interests to engage with all of the parties that are competing for parliament or the presidency."
The official sought to portray the shift as a subtle evolution rather than a dramatic change in Washington's stance toward the Brotherhood, a group founded in 1928 that seeks to promote its conservative vision of Islam in society.
Under the previous policy, U.S. diplomats were allowed to deal with Brotherhood members of parliament who had won seats as independents -- a diplomatic fiction that allowed them to keep lines of communication open.
Where U.S. diplomats previously dealt only with group members in their role as parliamentarians, a policy the official said had been in place since 2006, they will now deal directly with low-level Brotherhood party officials.
There is no U.S. legal prohibition against dealing with the Muslim Brotherhood itself, which long ago renounced violence as a means to achieve political change in Egypt and which is not regarded by Washington as a foreign terrorist organization.
But other sympathetic groups, such as Hamas, which identifies the Brotherhood as its spiritual guide, have not disavowed violence against the state of Israel.
The result has been a dilemma for the Obama administration. Former officials and analysts said it has little choice but to engage the Brotherhood directly, given its political prominence after the February 11 downfall of former President Hosni Mubarak.
STIRRING UP DEMONS
U.S. President Barack Obama will surely face criticism for engaging with the Brotherhood, even tentatively.
Howard Kohr, executive director of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, made clear the pro-Israel group's deep skepticism about the group in a speech last month.
"While we all hope that Egypt emerges from its current political transition with a functioning, Western-oriented democracy, the fact is the best-organized political force in Egypt today is the Muslim Brotherhood -- which does not recognize Israel," Kohr said.
Former U.S. diplomats said the United States had to engage with the Brotherhood given its influence in Egypt.
"We cannot have a free and fair election and democracy unless we are going to be willing to talk to all the people that are a part of that democracy," said Edward Walker, a former U.S. ambassador to Egypt and Israel who now teaches at Hamilton College.
"It's going to stir up demons," he added. "You have got an awful lot of people who are not very happy with what the roots of the Brotherhood have spawned ... There will be people who will not accept that the Brotherhood is of a new or different character today."
Egypt's parliamentary elections are scheduled for September and its military rulers have promised to hold a presidential vote by the end of the year.
DIPLOMATIC FIG LEAF
U.S. dealings with the Brotherhood have evolved over time and officials have found ways to keep lines open under the cover of one diplomatic fig leaf or another.
"We have not had contacts with the Muslim Brotherhood," then Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said in response to a question at the American University in Cairo in June 2005. "We have not engaged the Muslim Brotherhood and ... we won't."
The reality is more complex.
In the 1980s, U.S. diplomats had open dealings, visiting the group's Cairo headquarters to call on members, including the Brotherhood's supreme guide, according to the text of a May 2008 speech by Francis Ricciardone, a former U.S. ambassador to Egypt who is now the U.S. ambassador to Turkey.
By 1994, when Walker became U.S. ambassador in Cairo, he said the policy was to avoid direct contacts and to deal with trade unionists or other prominent figures who happened to be members of the group.
This gave Washington a way to keep tabs on the Brotherhood's thinking without antagonizing those who opposed such contacts or the Mubarak regime, which maintained its status as a banned political organization and imprisoned many members -- but also allowed it to run social welfare programs.
Despite his animus toward the group, Mubarak himself indirectly facilitated U.S. contacts by allowing its sympathizers to win seats in parliament as long as they ran as independents, handing Washington a justification for contacts.
Elliott Abrams, a deputy national security adviser handling Middle East affairs under former President George W. Bush, said he favored dropping the ban on formal contacts -- but approaching any actual dealings with great caution.
Abrams said positions espoused by some Brotherhood members -- such as favoring religious tests for public office, questioning the rights of women and limiting freedom of religion or speech -- were "anathema" to the United States.
The group says it wants a civil state based on Islamic principles, but talk by some members of an "Islamic state" or "Islamic government" have raised concerns that their goal is a state where full Islamic sharia law is implemented. The group says such comments have been taken out of context.
"It's critical ... that we make it very, very clear to Egyptians, if we are going to do a meeting, that we are no less opposed to the ideas they represent," Abrams said, noting that there are splits among Brotherhood members.
"We have to think about whether we can use meetings to deepen those splits and to help, quietly, those who are trying to moderate the positions of the Brotherhood," he added, saying the United States should choose its interlocutors with care and that the talks need not be conducted by the U.S. ambassador.
The U.S. official who declined to be identified said U.S. diplomats "will continue to emphasize the importance of support for democratic principles and a commitment to nonviolence, and respect for minority and women's rights in conversations with all groups, including the Muslim Brotherhood."
(Additional reporting by Edmund Blair in Cairo. Editing by Warren Strobel and Paul Simao)