BUDAPEST (Reuters) - The United States will resume limited contacts with Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton confirmed on Thursday, saying it was in Washington's interests to deal with parties committed to non-violent politics.
While Clinton portrayed the administration's decision as a continuation of an earlier policy, it reflects a subtle shift in that U.S. officials will be able to deal directly with officials of the Islamist movement who are not members of parliament.
The move, first reported by Reuters on Wednesday, is likely to upset Israel and its U.S. supporters who have deep misgivings about the Brotherhood, a group founded in 1928 that seeks to promote its conservative vision of Islam in society.
Under president Hosni Mubarak, a key U.S. ally, the Brotherhood was formally banned, but since the ousting of the secular former general by a popular uprising in February, the Islamists are seen as a major force in forthcoming elections.
"We believe, given the changing political landscape in Egypt, that it is in the interests of the United States to engage with all parties that are peaceful, and committed to non-violence, that intend to compete for the parliament and the presidency," Clinton told reporters at a news conference.
"Now in any of those contacts, prior or future, we will continue to emphasise the importance of and support for democratic principles and especially a commitment to non-violence, respect for minority rights, and the full inclusion of women in any democracy," she added.
Clinton would not say whether the Obama administration had already begun such contacts or at what level it planned to deal with the group.
On Wednesday, a senior U.S. official disclosed the decision to Reuters, saying that where U.S. diplomats previously dealt only with group members in their role as parliamentarians, a policy he said had been in place since 2006, they will now deal directly with Brotherhood officials.
In Cairo, a spokesman for the Islamist group said it would welcome any formal contacts with the United States as a way to clarify its vision, but no such contacts have yet been made.
"We welcome such relationships with everyone because those relations will lead to clarifying our vision. But it won't include or be based on any intervention in the internal affairs of the country," spokesman Mohamed Saad el-Katatni told Reuters.
"Until now no contacts have been made with the group or the party," said Katatni, who is also secretary-general of the Brotherhood's new Freedom and Justice political party.
"This relationship will clarify our general views and our opinion about different issues."
There is no U.S. legal prohibition against dealing with the Muslim Brotherhood itself, which long ago renounced violence as a means to achieve political change in Egypt and which is not regarded by Washington as a foreign terrorist organisation.
But other sympathetic groups, such as Palestinian Hamas, which identifies the Brotherhood as its spiritual guide, have not disavowed violence against the state of Israel.
The result has been a dilemma for the Obama administration. Former officials and analysts said it has little choice but to engage the Brotherhood directly, given its political prominence after the fall of Mubarak.
Clinton sought to play down the shift, which former U.S. diplomats viewed as all but inevitable given the group's political heft and the fact that with parliament dissolved after Mubarak's toppling, U.S. diplomats had to find another way to justify dealing with Brotherhood officials.
"The importance here is that this is not a new policy, that it is one that we are re-engaging in because of the upcoming elections, but there will be certain expectations set and certain messages delivered," Clinton added.
"We hope that the move towards democracy that is taking place in Egypt will actually result in the kind of inclusive, participatory political system that we would like to see."
Widely regarded as Egypt's best organized political force, the Muslim Brotherhood is expected to do well in parliamentary elections that are scheduled for September.
But it has said it does not want a parliamentary majority, nor will it field a candidate for president.
Egypt's military rulers, who took over on Mubarak's toppling after massive street protests against his authoritarian rule, have promised a presidential vote by the end of 2011.
Additional reporting by Yasmine Saleh and Edmund Blair in Cairo; Editing by Alastair Macdonald