CAIRO--Good news for political reformers and Islamists: In an unexpected bit of diplomatic choreography, several members of the Muslim Brotherhood have been invited to attend Barack Obama's speech in Cairo tomorrow. This is a small triumph for the many people upset that Obama's visit would simply affirm Hosni Mubarak's near-monopoly on political discourse here, and if reports are true that the invitation came after a push for Washington, suggests that Obama isn't putting on a show perfectly tailored to Mubarak's liking.
To the typical American, the Muslim Brothers may sound more sinister than they are: Dedicated to an Islamist society in Egypt, they are a badly weakened political party which--although linked to terrorism in past decades--now operates nonviolently in the Egyptian parliament, in what precious little breathing room Mubarak's security state allows.
How tame are the Brothers? Enough that your relatively green foreign correspondent visited with one of their senior leaders today. After slogging through Cairo's bizarrely gnarled traffic to a quiet riverside neighborhood, I ascended two flights of marble steps to find a modestly ornate wooden door bearing a small blue-and-white sign that read "Muslim Brotherhood." Inside was a dreary, flourescent lit office space where televisions were tuned to al Jazeera. I was ushered in to the internal office of Mohamed Habib, deputy chairman of the Brotherhood in Egypt. Habib was a pleasant if unremarkable fellow, resembling not a stereotypical Islamist but an intellectual-- an academic, maybe, or an editor--in eyeglasses and a white collared shirt. On his desk lay an Arabic newspaper featuring a photo of Obama on its front page. Beside it were prayer beads, a silver candy dish, and a pair of cell phones.
Habib explained his skepticism about Obama's speech here on Thursday. "If there is no radical change in American policies, I don't think it matters what he says," Habib told me through a translator. "I pity Obama because I know he is not on his own. He is surrounded by different forces--business congolmerates and the Zionist lobby." Nor did Habib care much for the prevailing debate in the US about how much emphasis to place on democracy promotion. "Understand that democracy in the Bush administration was not a goal itself but a curtain to hide the atrocities in Iraq and Afghanistan." When it comes to Egypt's internal affairs, all the Muslim Brothers ask, Habib said, was that the US end its support for Hosni Mubarak's regime. "We don't want anything from the U.S. but to back off from supporting existing dictatorships. That's it," he said.
Oddly, it is not Islamists like Habib who are most upset with Obama right now. It is sectarian reformers like Ayman Nour, a 2005 presidential candidate who was imprisoned in 2006 and unexpectedly released earlier this year. I also met today with Nour, who told me that he, too, had been invited to Obama's speech--although he says he won't go and doesn't expect to applaud it. Tomorrow, I'll write more about Nour, perhaps the one Egyptian opposition figure Obama can get behind.