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A month of ideas.
Giancarlo Bosetti Editor-in-chief
Association for dialogue and intercultural understanding
Life and Society
IT Tuesday, 8 May 2007

Nixon in Egypt

Robert S. Leiken interviewed by Daniele Castellani Perelli

If Richard Nixon were still President of the United States, would he enter into dialogue with the Muslim Brotherhood? “Well, it’s a very hypothetical question, but I think so, yes. I think that a dialogue with the Muslim Brotherhood would be coherent with the strategy of realist Republicans. At the end of the day, Nixon opened up the Soviet Union, and he was the first American President to visit China.” Robert S. Leiken, Director of the Immigration and National Security Programs at the Nixon Center, and the author of the forthcoming Europe’s Angry Muslims, has provoked much debate with his essay ‘The Moderate Muslim Brotherhood’, co-written with Steven Brooke and published in the March-April issue of Foreign Affairs.

Leiken and Brooke have conducted lengthy research in the Arab world, which includes interviews with some of the most noted representatives of the much discussed Egyptian movement, and have come to the conclusion that between the United States and the Brotherhood “cooperation in specific areas of mutual interest – such as opposition to al Qaeda, the encouragement of democracy, and resistance to expanding Iranian influence – could well be feasible”. It is a theory which goes against the grain of the predominant current of thought for a number of reasons, not least because the Muslim Brotherhood are often accused of supporting terrorism, of being anti-American and anti-Semitic, and of pressing for the birth of an Islamic State in Egypt. And because their principal adversary, the Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, is one of the most important of the few allies that the United States have in the Islamic world.

The situation is changing, however, as Robert S. Leiken explains to Resetdoc. Mubarak has initiated constitutional reforms which push Egypt further from the threshold of democracy, and the possibility of the creation of a successional monarchy in favour of the President’s son, Gamal Mubarak, seems ever more realisable. “I am extremely disappointed by the Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s silence over Mubarak’s reforms, but I believe that elsewhere we can see signs of change in American discussions,” Leiken tells us. He refers to the recent meeting between the US House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer and Dr. Muhammad Sa’d Al-Katatni, head of the Muslim Brotherhood faction in the Egyptian parliament. The most interesting detail, however, is that, following that meeting, the US Ambassador to Egypt, Francis J. Ricciardone, left Egypt secretly, having been summoned by the State Department to a meeting in Washington.

“I believe there are signs that things are moving, as demonstrated by the decision of a magazine like Foreign Affairs to publish our essay, and by the debate which this has triggered”, adds Leiken, who explains his views in this way: “The Muslim Brotherhood movement is very complex, it contains within in it many different souls, and its moderate component is moving in a positive direction, and wants to communicate with the United States. It is a rooted movement, with widespread popular support, and it’s important to understand that the Muslim Brothers don’t want a jihad. In fact they are strongly criticised by terrorists such as al Zawahiri. Dialogue with them is an opportunity for the United States, that is so isolated in the Middle-Eastern region that it cannot afford to not speak with them”.

Leiken, whose work on Latin America has been quoted even by Ronald Reagan, has no illusions about some elements of the movement. He acknowledges, for example, that there are elements of the Brotherhood which are anti-Semitic and anti-American, but he explains how the moderate current is gaining more and more influence, and how the movement is anything but monolithic (as the Washington ‘hawks’ believe), especially in its international branches. “There is a part of the Egyptian movement which is in favor of dialogue with the United States, in Iraq they form part of the Parliament, and in Syria they are complimentary of the policies of the Bush administration and are fierce opponents of Assad’s regime. Finally, we have even talked about the issue of the Jewish people with some representatives of the Muslim Brotherhood who were very open and willing to discuss.”

Isn’t a refusal to speak with the Muslim Brotherhood, we ask him, a clear contradiction of the Bush administration’s strategy of ‘exporting democracy to the Islamic world’? “I completely agree,” responds Leiken, “the administration is split on this issue, but we ought to add that it is a question which cuts right across American politics. We have spoken with various representatives of both the Democrat and Republican parties, and we have discovered that there are those in favor of dialogue, and those opposed to it, within both camps.”

In the meantime there has been some movement, and even Cairo is aware of the fact. The Egyptian Foreign Minister, irritated by the meeting between Hoyer and Al-Katatni, has informed the American State Department that meeting with representatives of the Muslim Brotherhood means giving legitimacy to a movement that is outlawed in Egypt.


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