After a classified hearing about Egypt on Thursday, Sen. Dianne Feinstein told The Washington Times that she is worried about the possibility that more violent extremists could be freed from prison, citing jail breaks last month when some terrorists escaped during anti-Mubarak protests.
“There are a lot of jihadis in jail in Egypt, and my understanding is the Muslim Brotherhood wants them released,” said Mrs. Feinstein, California Democrat and chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence.
Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican and ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Committee who attended the same briefing, said he, too, is worried about the jail breaks.
“I am also concerned about what seems to be the rising influence of the Muslim Brotherhood in this whole process,” he added. “Remember they first said they would stay out of it. Now they are included into the discussions. We’ll see.”
One of the key challenges for the Obama administration will be how it manages the U.S. relationship with the Muslim Brotherhood, a group widely seen as the most organized opposition group in Egypt, but also one that supports terrorism against Israel.
Earlier this month, Muslim Brotherhood leaders said publicly the group did not intend to contest the presidential elections planned for September. The interim military government has not yet set a date for the elections. The group also pledged to only run for 30 percent of the seats in the national assembly.
At the same time, U.S. officials say the group is represented on the committee currently drafting amendments to the Egyptian constitution.
On Friday, Muslim Brotherhood theologian Yusuf al-Qaradawi is scheduled to lead prayers at Tahrir Square, the epicenter of the popular protests that toppled the Mubarak presidency. Mr. al-Qaradawi, who was barred from entering Egypt by the Mubarak regime, returned to Cairo from Qatar.
The Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt is the first organization to advocate for political Islam, or a government guided by Islam and not a secular constitution.
The Brotherhood in Egypt ostensibly renounced violence in the 1970s in response to outreach from then-Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, who was assassinated in 1981 by a breakaway faction known as Egyptian Islamic Jihad. In the late 1990s, the Brotherhood is believed to have helped persuade more violent jihadists in Egyptian prisons to abandon terrorism.
Nonetheless the group has been a major concern for both Democratic and Republican lawmakers as the United States seeks to use its leverage with the military regime in Cairo to help Egypt make the transition from dictatorship to democracy.
On Thursday, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton announced that the State Department would be spending up to $150 million in aid supporting that transition.
Egypt has received about $1.5 billion a year since 1979, the year Sadat signed a peace treaty with Israel. A little more than $1 billion out of that annual budget goes to military aid, giving the United States significant influence on Egypt’s military.
Mrs. Clinton has said the Muslim Brotherhood should be allowed to participate in upcoming elections if the group respects civil society.