WASHINGTON -- Six years ago in Cairo, I made a point of dropping by the newly opened offices of the Muslim Brotherhood to see what they were really up to. They had been banned for years. Especially, their burning down a third of Cairo in the 1940s had not endeared them to other Egyptians.
But now they were suddenly "legal" again.
I've always been amazed as a correspondent at the way people answer my questions -- and the Brotherhood's leader, Essam el-Erian, dressed as perfectly as if he were going to a wedding, answered with surprising candor, given the group's reputation for dancing by themselves in the shadows of their country.
"We are pro-change and reform in the country," he told me, as we sat primly in the Brotherhood's meticulous offices, "but to have abrupt change is very dangerous. Therefore, we did not rush to have candidates put forward for all the seats in the coming elections. We only ran for a third." In short, he was admitting that the Brotherhood, formed in Egypt in the '20s, was not even trying to win. That would be too threatening, too short-run.
There is still some of that Machiavellian caution in the acts of the Brotherhood today, but it is rapidly dissolving in the roiling currents of Egypt's new politics. The Brotherhood IS now running a presidential candidate, Khairat el-Shater, breaking the group's long-held pledge not to do so. Others, from the radical Salafist Muslims, who would install a totally Islamic state with Sharia law, to the former intelligence chief Omar Suleiman, also are contesting Egypt's second presidential election with more than one candidate on May 23-24.
But of all the interesting things in this election -- from the Brotherhood's phoenix-like rise, to the rapid fall of the pharaonic Hosni Mubarak -- one of the most important and most likely to have serious consequences in Egypt occurred here in Washington only last week. Barack Obama fulfilled one of his campaign promises to talk with the leaders of the world, friend or foe.
In one of the truly astounding events in the aftermath of last year's "Arab Spring" uprisings, delegations from both the Muslim Brotherhood and the Egyptian Salafists were in Washington to meet with representatives of the Obama government to discuss the future. Until now the United States has vowed never to meet with such groups, particularly if they were involved in terrorism (as both of these could be argued to be).
In addition, this meeting comes on top of the Brotherhood's attempts to get the radical Palestinian Hamas, which runs Gaza, to unite with the moderate Palestinian Fatah, which runs the better-administered West Bank. So, at the moment, just about everything is up for grabs -- and it will be the winner of the Egyptian elections next month who will catch the political bouquet and decide in which direction Egypt will move.
Since President Obama made a major point in his campaign of speaking to other leaders, even unfriendly ones (the Iranian leaders were the most mentioned), these talks with the two historically most anti-American movements in Egypt may mark an important turning point indeed.
The Republicans, of course, have had a consistent policy of studiously ignoring unfriendly nations -- speaking with them or negotiating with them was the equivalent of speaking with the devil. In general, the Democrats have tended to believe in having relations with every country and every leader, no matter what their beliefs or intentions, because you then have a better chance of working with them.
When I first went to the Middle East in the 1970s, it soon became clear to me that we foreign correspondents were looked upon by our diplomats as the ones who should talk with the Palestine Liberation Organization. The U.S. had formally embraced Israel's hatred of the terrorist-prone PLO and in that era our government "did not talk with terrorists."
That left us. Our work, after all, was to talk with the PLO, and then to write about it. I began to feel as a half-journalist and half-diplomat. That was perfectly OK with me. If I talked with our diplomats about the PLO, it was only about the same information I had written in my stories. In addition, when a journalist was captured by the PLO, which happened often in those days, we correspondents were the ones who had to negotiate to get the hostage out.