Official U.S. government engagement with Islamist political parties has long been a controversial subject. In April, however, mid-level White House officials officially met with a delegation from Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood. President Barack Obama’s move was considered bold by the Republican Party, despite precedents set by both Republican and Democratic administrators and Senators such as Lindsey Graham, John McCain and John Kerry, who have all already met with representatives from the Muslim Brotherhood.
Because of the rise of new Islamist parties to leadership, especially in Tunisia and Egypt, U.S. engagement has become an important campaign issue for the American presidential candidates. But what is needed instead is for both sides to frame their relationship as an opportunity to increase economic engagement.
For the United States, the next step is to move past worrying about the degree to which Islam may influence party leaders to looking at a country’s potential as an economic partner. If the U.S. were to do this, it would gain access to the Arab world’s largest market, Egypt, which is also a base for foreign direct investment.
In fact, both Tunisia and Egypt have the potential to provide access to Africa’s emerging markets. Since 2011, discussions of a Free Trade Agreement with Egypt have emerged in the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Such an agreement could provide a framework to benefit both countries through increased trade. U.S. businesses could benefit from the Egyptian markets while Egypt would in turn be able to export to the United States more easily.
In Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood leads the Freedom and Justice Party, which holds 235 of 498 seats in the Egyptian Parliament (at least until the discord over parliamentary representation is resolved). Its candidate Mohammad Mursi was also elected president. The party succeeded for a few reasons. Beginning in 1948, the Muslim Brotherhood was forced underground and engaged in non-political fields, providing health services and literacy programs for instance, allowing them to connect with Egyptians on a local level. The Freedom and Justice Party then emerged in 2011. For now, Egyptian voters feel that Islamist parties are accountable to them after elections, and that they will be reviewed in the next set of elections if they falter.
Tunisia’s Ennahda party was established in 1981 and banned by former president Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali in 1992. It is seen by some as a credible party that understands average people’s concerns, such as corruption, which may have contributed to its success in the 2011 elections.
Yet, just because both Egypt’s Freedom and Justice Party and Tunisia’s Ennahda are Islamist parties does not mean they will drive both countries toward a parallel political and economic destiny. Nor will both push for the same relationship with the United States. Middle East experts, like Stephen King and Samer Shehata of Georgetown University, point out that the factors at stake in Egypt are more complicated than in Tunisia.
In terms of foreign policy, civil society and political leaders in Egypt are questioning its increasing dependency on U.S. economic assistance through foreign aid. In contrast, Tunisia has been more amendable to relations with the U.S., for instance by welcoming the Peace Corps. Tunisian non-governmental organizations are concerned about youth unemployment and many welcome the technical training programs supported by the Peace Corps, which are designed to equip youths with skills to become more employable. The U.S. has also provided aid for debt relief and civil society programs.
When it comes to the political engagement between the United States and the newly elected parties in Tunisia and Egypt, the focus should be on the potential economic gains. Whether in the U.S., Egypt or Tunisia, people participate in politics so that their voices are heard, and to improve their chances to access opportunities. The success of the Muslim Brotherhood and Ennahda has demonstrated that voters are ready to elevate social and economic welfare concerns.
Now it is time for the Muslim Brotherhood and Ennahda to demonstrate that they can access more economic opportunities for their people. And it is time for the United States to prove that it will engage with their democratically elected leaders, and that such engagement can be in the interest of both sides.
Mehrunisa Qayyum is an international development consultant and the founder of PITAPOLICY Consulting. THE DAILY STAR publishes this commentary in collaboration with the Common Ground News Service (www.commongroundnews.org).