Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Senator John Kerry made a quiet trip to Egypt over the weekend, where he met with leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood -- the first senior US official to do so. The meeting will undoubtedly set off the country's secularists and liberals, but the bottom line is that the Brotherhood is going to lead Egypt in the very near future, and it's time we get to know each other.
In last week's elections, the Brotherhood won something around 40 percent of the new parliament's seats, well above any other party. Along with allied, more conservative, parties, Egypt's Muslim fundamentalists will control nearly 60 percent of the seats. So whether we like it or not, the Brotherhood is going to give Egypt its next prime minister.
The stakes are high. Egypt's economy is a wreck and is incapable of creating enough jobs to keep up with the country's population growth. The Egyptian people expect quick action against the rampant corruption that has held the economy back for decades. And there's a nascent al-Qaeda presence in the Sinai that seems intent on attacking not just Israel, but Egypt's natural gas pipeline. The country needs as much help as it can get.
For years, the term "Muslim Brotherhood" has frightened Americans, especially in the US foreign policy establishment. It has conjured up images of Hamas (which the Brotherhood helped to create), anti-American activism, and veiled women. These images are accurate. The Brotherhood is Sunni fundamentalist. But so is Saudi Arabia, and we have a perfectly normal and beneficial relationship with the Saudis.
So what's in it for us? First, we should have learned a lesson from the Bush White House, which worked harder than any previous administration to not talk to adversaries. Diplomatic discourse is always a positive thing. If we keep the channels of communication open from the beginning of a relationship, we have a better chance to settle differences in a conference room, rather than across a battlefield or in the United Nations Security Council.
Second, the Brotherhood maintains a close relationship with Hamas, although it does not control the organization. Can we rely on the Brotherhood to convince Hamas to drop terrorist attacks against Israel? Maybe. Maybe not. But it's worth trying. The Brotherhood is fundamentalist, but it has never, ever been identified as a "terrorist" group by any organ of the US Government. There is no legitimate reason for us to not talk to them.
So why is John Kerry the person to speak first with the Brotherhood? Hillary Clinton passed up the chance on her last trip to Egypt, and the US Ambassador to Egypt hasn't done anything to open a dialogue.
Kerry doesn't have the burden of the Obama team's "policy" on his back, although he can act as a surrogate for the White House when the President needs him to. That's undoubtedly what happened here. Obama wants to talk to the Brotherhood, but he doesn't want to anger US voters who may oppose such an overture. Kerry is the perfect person to do the job. He's a foreign policy heavyweight, he gets things done in difficult situations and in difficult countries, and when he tells an interlocutor that he speaks for the President, that means he really does speak for the President.
I know John Kerry well. I know him to be an thoughtful and deliberate diplomat. There is no doubt that we should be engaging the Muslim Brotherhood. That Kerry is doing it indicates that the White House is serious about ensuring and continuing a productive relationship with Egypt. That can only be a good thing.
John Kiriakou was a CIA officer from 1990 until 2004, and senior investigator on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee from 2009 until 2011.