As the Obama administration scurries for clues about Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood, analysts are split about whether the group would institute a strict brand of law known as sharia that could undercut Washington-Cairo relations.
The Brotherhood already has secured a firm grip over Egypt's new parliament, and despite previous vows against running a presidential candidate, the group could soon control both branches of the post-Hosni Mubarak government.
Some U.S. lawmakers and officials worry the Brotherhood, which has had strained relations with Washington for decades, will turn Egypt into a fully Islamic state based on a strict version of sharia that is hostile to American and Western whims. Because Egypt is considered by many the heart of the Islamic world, the fear is other Middle Eastern and North African nations might follow suit.
There is a spreading "movement to allow Shariah to govern personal status law, a set of regulations that pertain to marriage, divorce, inheritance, and custody," states a Council on Foreign Relations fact sheet.
"Some interpretations are used to justify cruel punishments such as amputation and stoning as well as unequal treatment of women in inheritance, dress, and independence. The debate is growing as to whether Shariah can coexist with secularism, democracy, or even modernity."
New legislation was introduced in the Oklahoma legislature "that addresses the legal issues holding up [the ballot measure] by banning the use of all foreign law in Oklahoma courts," according to ThinkProgress.org.
Brotherhood officials were in Washington last week, largely to meet with Obama administration officials. The White House made a point to highlight that the group met with mid-level National Security Council staffers, giving President Obama some political distance.
The administration, experts say, have come to a realization Washington will have to deal with a Brotherhood that controls Egypt's parliament, and may soon also be the party of the north African nation's chief executive.
"It's a fact that Egypt's political landscape has changed, the actors have become more diverse, and our engagement reflects that," White House spokesman Jay Carney told reporters last week. "The point is that we will judge Egypt's political actors by how they act, not by their religious affiliation."
Marina Ottaway of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace says "the White House and other parts of the government know the Islamists are going to be in the dominant or a very important position."
Combined, the Brotherhood and other political parties rooted in strict Islamic law received 70 percent of the votes in Egypt's parliamentary election, Ottaway says.
"So Washington is saying, 'We have to get to know these people better,'" says Ottaway. "Clearly, there is an effort by the administration to make up for lost time, and a realization that you have got to get to know them."
The Egyptian constitution features provisions that state Islam is the official state religion and sharia is the basis for all legislation, Ottaway notes, saying it is doubtful the Brotherhood will attempt to implement stricter measures.
"I think the last thing to worry about is sharia, but unfortunately all the debate seems to be over sharia," she says. Ottaway sees two other unresolved issues dominating Egypt's political clashes over the immediate future: a debate over whether the nation needs a parliamentary or presidential government framework; and another about the proper role of its influential military.
But James Phillips of the conservative Heritage Foundation describes the Obama administration's effort to establish a working rapport with the group as destined to fail--largely because of its long history of hostility toward American ally Israel.
"The Obama administration has bent over backwards to demonstrate its good intentions toward the anti-Western Islamist organization, which is now positioned to hijack Egypt's pro-democracy revolution," says Phillips.
The Brotherhood's "top priority would be installing [sharia], which would impose restrictions on the freedoms of Egyptians, particularly women and religious minorities such as the Coptic Christians, who make up an estimated 10 percent of the population," says Phillips.
He also criticizes the administration for opting to revive military aid to Egypt, saying it sends a signal to other Islamic nations that they can "exploit" Washington.
It's not just conservative Republicans who work at Washington think tanks who are worried about what some Republicans have called "creeping sharia."
Voters in heavily conservative Oklahoma last year overwhelmingly voted in favor of a ballot measure banning sharia from being considered by state courts, according to ThinkProgress.org. A federal judge last year shot down that law.
A new bill has been introduced in the Oklahoma legislature "that addresses the legal issues holding up [the ballot measure] by banning the use of all foreign law in Oklahoma courts," according to ThinkProgress.org.