WASHINGTON — The Muslim Brotherhood's rise in a new Egypt could affect the United States' relationship with the most populous Arab nation as the organization develops political influence, a House panel was told Wednesday. Or it may be no more important than any other political party in the Middle East.
In a rare open hearing, the House Intelligence Committee's panel on terrorism and espionage took a public look at the political organization that subcommittee Chairwoman Sue Myrick, R-N.C., fears could be rising in power and quietly influencing American Muslims.
"There are no buildings on K Street with 'Muslim Brotherhood' in the lobby directory," Myrick said. "This allows the Muslim Brotherhood to muddy the water when it comes to foreign funding and influence and to hide behind groups that have plausible deniability of their involvement with the Brotherhood when necessary."
Nathan J. Brown, the director of the Institute for Middle East Studies at George Washington University, cautioned that Congress should be careful about assuming nefarious motivations for the group.
Brown said he believed the Muslim Brotherhood when it renounced violence, though he acknowledged that the group condones violence in the case of foreign occupations.
"There are legitimate concerns about the Brotherhood's rise, but I don't think there's any reason for panic," Brown said. "In many ways, it does represent a headache for us. It does not represent a cancer."
Democrats on the committee questioned whether the open hearing risked alienating Muslims and might do more to incite than inform since, they said, little of substance could be discussed in public.
"I fear we will do little but add our voices to the buzz of public opinion," said Rep. Luis Gutierrez, D-Ill.
Myrick has said she's concerned about what impact the organization could have on the United States, and she thinks the government has no strategy to deal with the group.
Earlier this year, Myrick posted two videos on her congressional website describing "the clear and present danger the Muslim Brotherhood presents to America."
The Justice Department has said the Muslim Brotherhood has ties to organizations in the United States. In her opening statement Wednesday, Myrick referred to evidence in the Holy Land Foundation trial several years ago, in which a member of the Muslim Brotherhood expressed the desire to work with Muslim organizations in the United States.
The group has renounced violence and al Qaida has cast it aside, but Myrick called the avowed changes "merely superficial."
Some of those testifying agreed. Just days back from a fact-finding trip to Egypt, Robert Satloff, the director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, told the subcommittee that it should be concerned about the emergence of the Muslim Brotherhood as a player and possible power broker in Egypt.
"Tactically, I believe the organization will exploit whatever opportunities it is offered," Satloff said.
Lorenzo Vidino, a fellow at the RAND Corp. in Washington, said that while the Brotherhood might like to introduce an Islam-based Shariah law in the West, "the Brothers are deeply pragmatic and aware of what they can and can't do."
He also said the American government didn't seem to have a complete understanding of the Muslim Brotherhood.
Meanwhile, Myrick referenced a McClatchy article this week that says U.S. diplomats in Egypt have been increasingly concerned about a more conservative religious group — the Salafis — that's positioning itself alongside the more moderate Muslim Brotherhood in the new political system.
The Salafis, an ultraconservative branch of Islam, espouse a rigid ideology with literalist interpretations of the religion.
Last month, a Salafi umbrella group announced that it would enter the political arena, something it had previously boycotted, to focus on religious outreach. In the past week, Salafis have urged their followers to vote for the Muslim Brotherhood in elections, acknowledging its political experience.
In a 2009 confidential cable obtained by WikiLeaks, a diplomat in the U.S. Embassy in Egypt calls the rise of the Salafis a "major societal shift" and says they may have more influence than the Muslim Brotherhood.
Myrick said she planned to hold a closed session on the Muslim Brotherhood to receive classified information.
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