Expected Win by Egypt's Islamists Poses Dilemma for U.S. Policy

Experts disagree on whether the United States should engage the Muslim Brotherhood.

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The first round of parliamentary elections in Egypt drew to a close Tuesday after a surprisingly smooth two-day voting process across the country. According to country insiders who observed polling stations on the ground, there's little doubt that the Muslim Brotherhood, a conservative Islamist group that's proven to be the country's best organized political party, will be the election's top winner.

For the Obama administration, which has pushed for free and fair elections in Egypt, the process itself might be considered a victory. The outcome, however, would be a bitter pill to swallow, as U.S. policymakers are forced to reach out to the Muslim Brotherhood to protect their interests in the region.

[Read: Egypt Islamists Pull Out Stops in Post-Mubarak Poll.]

"We don't have a choice at this point. They're a reality whether we like them or not," says Brookings Doha Center Director of Research Shadi Hamid, who has been watching the election from Cairo. "The time has finally come for the U.S. to live with political Islam."

According to Hamid, the Muslim Brotherhood and their political arm, the "Freedom and Justice Party," are considered "central right" on Egypt's political spectrum. "There's really no argument to be made that they're extremists or radicalists" among the country's largely religious and conservative society, he says.

Back in the United States, and especially among Republicans, however, views about the Brotherhood and its intentions in Egypt have been less forgiving.

"The Muslim brotherhood will inevitably steer Egypt on a hostile course," says James Phillips, senior research fellow for Middle East Affairs at the conservative Heritage Foundation. "For the Muslim Brotherhood, democracy is a useful means of coming to power, but not a valued end state."

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The brotherhood's close ties to Hamas, an extremist, Islamist political party based in Gaza, give reason to worry if and when the group gains power, Phillips says. He argues that Hamas could pull Egypt into future conflicts with Israel, which could then spill over into U.S. and Egyptian relations. Another worry is the internal threat the group could pose for Christian minorities in the nation.

For these reasons, Phillips says that the United States should keep an arm's length from the Muslim Brotherhood, or risk "demoralizing" Egypt's more liberal, secular political groups.

"If they're elected officials, then the U.S. will have to deal with them," Phillips says. "But I wouldn't go out of our way to pretend to be friendly."

Hamid agrees that there should be a line between engaging with Islamists and actually supporting them. But, he says that given the fact that few political actors in any party in Egypt would want to align with the United States, maintaining a dialogue and at least some level of trust with the Muslim Brotherhood is the best the United States can do to keep its interests intact for now.

"The U.S. should maintain a policy of engaging with actors from across the political spectrum, not just Islamists and not just liberals," he says, adding that since "no one in the Egyptian political spectrum is pro-American," supporting certain groups over others won't necessarily work to a U.S. advantage.

[Read: Women Could Promote Rights Through Islam.]

Despite some contact between the group and U.S. officials since this summer, Hamid says that the administration needs do more to build ties with the Islamists, especially if and when they are officially elected to represent Egypt's parliament. "There's no game plan. There's no strategy for engaging with the brotherhood," he says. "There has to be a relationship built on mutual understanding and some degree of trust. That has not happened yet, and more problematically, I don't think there's a vision for doing so."

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