A lawmaker from Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood said Thursday that there would be "no referendum at all" on the country's peace treaty with Israel, hours after the Islamist group's presidential candidate made his unexpected bid official.
"We respect international obligations, period," Abdul Mawgoud Dardery, a lawmaker from the Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), told The Washington Times.
Mr. Dardery was on a good-will tour of Washington this week with three other Muslim Brotherhood representatives. Long shunned by Washington, the group has sought to soften its image in the West as it prepares to assume greater power in post-revolution Egypt.
On Thursday, the White House downplayed the significance of a meeting between administration officials and the Brotherhood's envoys.
White House spokesman Jay Carney said the FJP representatives met with "midlevel" officials from the National Security Council and that it was a reflection of the new politics in Egypt and the "prominent role" the group now plays in Cairo.
"We have broadened our engagement to include new and emerging political parties and actors," Mr. Carney said.
"Because of the fact that Egypt's political landscape has changed, the actors have become more diverse and our engagement reflects that," he said. "The point is that we will judge Egypt's political actors by how they act, not by their religious affiliation."
The Muslim Brotherhood's ascendancy to power in the aftermath of longtime President Hosni Mubarak's ouster last year has raised concerns among secular Egyptians and Coptic Christians, as well as U.S. and Israeli officials, about how the fundamentalist group would rule Egypt's 85 million people and conduct its foreign relations.
Asked whether a Brotherhood-led government would put the 1979 Camp David Accords to a referendum, as many of the group's leaders have promised, Mr. Dardery said no.
"No referendum at all concerning international obligations," he said. "All our international agreements are respected by the Freedom and Justice Party, including Camp David."
Meanwhile, FJP presidential candidate Khairat al-Shater filed papers Thursday with Egypt's High Presidential Elections Commission. Egyptians will vote in the presidential election's first round May 23 and 24, with the top two vote-getters facing off in a June 16 runoff.
The Brotherhood had promised not to field a presidential candidate but changed course Saturday, citing threats to democracy from the military council that has ruled Egypt since Mr. Mubarak stepped down in February 2011.
In Washington, Mr. Dardery said the Brotherhood fielded a candidate "to make sure that [the] democracy road is protected by the people of Egypt," arguing that the military council had refused to give the parliament sufficient authority.
Mr. Shater, a businessman with a reputation for cunning pragmatism, joins a crowded field that includes Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa, former Prime Minister Ahmed Shafik and moderate Islamist Abdel Moneim Abdoul Futouh. Salafist preacher Hazem Abu Ismail was disqualified Thursday, increasing Mr. Shater's chances for victory.
Doubts about democracy
A poll taken by Egypt's Al Ahram newspaper found that 58 percent prefer an Islamist candidate.
With Mr. Shater's entry, some analysts now doubt that Mr. Moussa — once considered the overwhelming favorite — will make the runoff.
"Egypt is not moving toward a democracy," said Eric Trager, an Egypt analyst at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. "It is moving toward a competitive theocracy in which the Muslim Brotherhood is pitted against more fundamentalist Salafists.
"The question is only which interpretation of the Shariah will be legislated, not whether Egypt will be a theocratic state."
The FJP and the hard-line Salafist Nour Party won two-thirds of the seats in recent parliamentary elections and now dominate the constituent assembly tasked with writing Egypt's new constitution.
The prospect of unchecked Islamist control has frightened secular Egyptians as well as the country's large Coptic Christian community, which has faced escalating violence over the past year.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said this week that U.S. officials "want to see Egypt move forward in a democratic transition, and what that means is you do not and cannot discriminate against religious minorities, women, political opponents."
Egypt's Islamist tide also has sparked concerns in Israel, which has maintained a cold but stable peace with its southern neighbor since 1979.
"The Muslim Brothers will not show mercy to us, they will not give way to us, but I hope they will keep the peace," Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Tuesday. "It is important for us, but I think that it is also important for Egypt."
Despite Mr. Dardery's statements Thursday, many analysts remain skeptical about the Brotherhood's true intentions.
Trouble in the Sinai
"Their discourse back at home about Israel being an enemy is consistent with where they have been all along, and I don't think we should expect any change," said Steven Cook, senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and author of "The Struggle for Egypt."
"I think their hope is that they can put [the peace treaty] to the side at least for the moment, but the fact that they called for this referendum, the fact that they've used this issue makes it hard to believe that they wouldn't bow to any political pressure [on Israel]."
Israel has had tense relations with Egypt's military council, which the Jewish state says has not done enough to prevent terrorists from operating in the Sinai Peninsula.
Early Thursday, Mr. Netanyahu warned that the Sinai is becoming a "terror zone" after a rocket fired from the territory struck the southern Israeli resort city of Eilat. No injuries were reported.
The prospect of a further deterioration in relations between the two countries would raise difficult questions for Washington, which has given Egypt roughly $2 billion in aid annually since 1979.
"If they no longer respect agreements reached under previous governments, then they're not a country worthy of our support," said Rep. Gary L. Ackerman of New York, the ranking Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee's Middle East and South Asia subcommittee.
But Mr. Ackerman, echoing a now-common school of thought in Washington, told The Times that Mr. Shater's candidacy might be a positive development given the alternative.
"If I was writing the morning line on who can beat the Salafists, it's the Muslim Brotherhood," he said. "And if I have to choose between horrible and not that great, I'll take not that great."
• Susan Crabtree contributed to this report.
© Copyright 2013 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.
Ben Birnbaum is a reporter covering foreign affairs for The Washington Times. Prior to joining The Times, Birnbaum worked as a reporter-researcher at the New Republic. A Boston-area native, he graduated magna cum laude from Cornell University with a degree in government and psychology. He won multiple collegiate journalism awards for his articles and columns in the Cornell Daily Sun.
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