For Egypt's Brotherhood, Governing Will Be A Different Task

Amid fears of Islamist rule, expert says major tensions with Israel are unlikely.

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Protest in Tahrir Square, Cairo
Protesters chant slogans at a rally in Tahrir Square in Cairo Egypt.

With the Muslim Brotherhood poised to gain control over Egypt's parliament and presidency, experts are quick to note governing is much harder than political rabble rousing.

On Friday, Mohammed Morsi, the Brotherhood candidate, advanced to a runoff election slated for next month in the north African nation's first true open and competitive presidential election. Experts say Morsi is most likely to face former leftist prime minister Ahmed Shafiq, who was close to ousted leader Hosni Mubarak.

One Middle East expert says those in the U.S. and Israel who are leery of a Brotherhood-led Egypt should take solace in its second electoral victory in recent months. That is because when one party grabs power, it also immediately grabs all responsibility for solving a nation's problems.

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If Morsi wins the June 16-17 runoff and becomes Egypt's first popularly elected chief executive, it would give the Brotherhood most of the power. Combined, the Brotherhood and other political parties rooted in strict Islamic law received 70 percent of the votes in Egypt's recent parliamentary elections.

In Washington, lawmakers in both parties have expressed fear that if the Islamic group gains power, a longtime U.S. ally in the toughest neighborhood in the world could be lost.

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.

They also fear a Brotherhood-led government would throw out peace treaties with Israel, or even goad the Jewish state into a war.

But Jeffery Martini, a Middle East specialist at the Rand Corp., says the Muslim Brotherhood almost certainly will be forced to deal with Egypt's myriad domestic problems, not foreign policy matters.

"The Brotherhood very much, if Morsi wins, will not want to ruin its moment by causing some big distraction from a foreign policy flap," Martini says.

And the problems at home are many. For starters, some independent estimates have pegged Egypt's gross domestic product shrinkage in the first quarter after the Mubarak-booting revolution at 4 percent.

"The economy is a mess," Martini says. "For anyone who is rooting for the Brotherhood to fail, you want them to gain power—because they would also become accountable and be in charge of the problems."

On Israel, the Brotherhood wants to make "changes" to its major treaty and other pacts with Israel, not scrap or substantially alter them, says Martini. "I think people just misread it...These are not the makings for war," he adds.

Some U.S. lawmakers aren't so sure.

"Engaging the Muslim Brotherhood should not be on the table," warned House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairwoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a Florida Republican, said last February.

Lawmakers have the luxury to make such bold statements. Administrations have to, at times, face realities they might regret.

Some of those worries could be waning, Martini says. When U.S. lawmakers recently visited Egypt to help secure the release of American NGO workers, he said members from both parties praised the Brotherhood for helping free the aid workers.

Brotherhood officials were in Washington in April, 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 that 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.

John T. Bennett covers national security and foreign policy for U.S. News & World Report. You can contact him at jbennett@usnews.com or follow him on Twitter.

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