Why the U.S. now views the Muslim Brotherhood as a moderate ally in Egypt

The New York Times reports: Hazem Salah Abu Ismail is an old-school Islamist.

He wants to move toward abolishing Egypt’s peace treaty with Israel and cites Iran as a successful model of independence from Washington. He worries about the mixing of the genders in the workplace and women’s work outside the home. And he promises to bring extraordinary prosperity to Egypt, if it turns its back on trade with the West.

He has also surged to become a front-runner in the race to become Egypt’s next president, reconfiguring political battle lines here. His success may help explain why the United States offered signs of tacit approval over the weekend when the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt’s largest Islamic group, broke its pledge not to field its own candidate.

With a first round of voting set for late May and a runoff in mid-June, the first presidential race here since the ouster of Hosni Mubarak last year is shaping up as a battle among Islamists.

The Brotherhood, which leads Parliament, had pledged not to seek the presidency for fear of provoking a backlash from the Egyptian military and the West. But Mr. Abu Ismail’s surge raises the prospect that the winner might not be a more secular or liberal figure, but a strident Islamist who opposes the Brotherhood’s pragmatic focus on stable relations with the United States and Israel and free-market economics.

Mr. Abu Ismail poses a subtler threat, too, challenging the Brotherhood’s status as the main voice of Islamist politics in Egypt and threatening to undermine its campaign to set aside Western fears of political Islam. The Brotherhood is taking a considerable risk in running its own candidate against him, since its victory is by no means assured.

And so, in a remarkable inversion, American policy makers who once feared a Brotherhood takeover now appear to see the group as an indispensable ally against Egypt’s ultraconservatives, exemplified by Mr. Abu Ismail.

American diplomats — surprised by the success of ultraconservative, populist Islamists known as Salafis in parliamentary elections — have watched Mr. Abu Ismail with growing alarm.

On Sunday, speaking on condition of standard diplomatic anonymity, State Department officials said they were untroubled and even optimistic about the Brotherhood’s reversal of its pledge not to seek the presidency. The Brotherhood’s candidate, Khairat el-Shater, a millionaire businessman considered the most formative influence on the group’s policies, is well known to both American diplomats and their contacts in the Egyptian military. Though in and out of prison, he was the Brotherhood’s main point of contact with Mr. Mubarak’s security services and is now its main conduit for talks with the council of generals who took power at his ouster.

Mr. Shater has met with almost all the senior State Department officials and American lawmakers visiting Cairo. He is in regular contact with the American ambassador, Anne Patterson, as well as the executives of many American companies here, and United States officials have praised his moderation as well as his intelligence and effectiveness.

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