From CNN Foreign Affairs Reporter Elise Labott
WASHINGTON (CNN) – For nearly three quarters of a century, the Muslim Brotherhood was banned from Egyptian politics and shunned by the West as a fundamentalist Islamic movement.
But this week the Brotherhood sent its first official delegation to Washington, meeting with high level administration officials.
The visit was part of a global goodwill tour to soften the group’s image and introduce its political faction, the Freedom and Justice Party, which emerged from the revolution that ousted Hosni Mubarak to capture nearly half the seats in Egypt’s new parliament.
“We are here to start building bridges of understanding with the United States," Sondos Asem, a member of the party's foreign relations committee and editor of its official English-language website, told students at Georgetown University. "We acknowledge the very important role of the United States in the world and we would like our relations with the United States to be better than before."
The delegation also joined Islamist parties from Tunisia, Libya, and Morocco at a conference sponsored by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace that addressed the rise of Islamists into mainstream politics after revolutions across the Arab world swept secular, Western-backed dictators from power.
Dressed in suits, speaking English and delivering PowerPoint presentations, the delegation presented a kinder, gentler face of the Brotherhood, in an effort to counter long-held assumptions by Americans of the movement. Several held doctorate degrees from American universities.
At every turn, the group went to great lengths to portray the Brotherhood as a moderate and socially conscious movement which represents all Egyptians and believes in a pluralistic society with the separation of religion and the state.
"The principles are universal: freedom, human rights, justice for all. This is the priority of the Freedom and Justice Party," said Abdul Mawgoud Dardery, a member of Egypt’s parliament from Luxor, who earned his PhD at the University of Pittsburgh.
But U.S. officials are wondering how representative the delegation, and the moderate values they espoused during their visit, are of the conservative Brotherhood’s true beliefs.
While the Obama administration has reached out to the Brotherhood since it swept to power in parliamentary elections last year, officials have expressed serious concerns, echoed by Egypt’s secularists, that the Islamist group would impose Islamic laws, which could threaten the rights of women and religious minorities such as Coptic Christians.
Although the Freedom and Justice Party represents the more pragmatic wing of the movement, it is finding itself at odds with the more fundamentalist al-Nour party, whose Salafist interpretation of Islam won a quarter of votes in last year's parliamentary elections.
The Brotherhood, one U.S. official noted has a history of evolving over time and is “now redefining itself,” which raises the question “do they really know themselves, who they are today?”
In his appearances this week, the delegation sought to ease concerns that the party was planning to implement Sharia law. Dardery stressed the Brotherhood believes in a constitution based on “Sharia principles, not Sharia rulings.”
U.S. concerns about Sharia were further heightened by the Brotherhood’s decision to field a candidate in the country’s presidential elections beginning next month. The party had promised not to field a candidate, but changed course citing threats to democracy from the military council.
The U.S. also is anxious to ensure a Brotherhood-led government would abide by the 1979 Camp David peace treaty with Israel. Several of the group’s leaders have promised to put the accords to a referendum, but Dardery said the Brotherhood would respect “all international agreements,” including the Camp David Accords.
This delegation in town this week met with Deputy Secretary of State William Burns and Assistant Secretary Jeff Feltman, as well as members of Congress.
But their meetings at the White House were a sensitive topic. White House spokesman Jay Carney downplayed the talks, saying the representatives met with “midlevel” officials from the National Security Council.
Carney, however acknowledged the group’s new strategic influence, saying "the Muslim Brotherhood will play a prominent role in Egypt's life going forward.”
“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 United States must also balance longstanding ties with Egypt’s military with the need to build a relationship with the Muslim Brotherhood as they both jockey for power and feel their way through Egypt’s political transition.
“There is no question that the Muslim Brotherhood’s decision to nominate a candidate is a challenge” to the military, one U.S. official said. “But the challenge is at the core of democracy – its how both groups conduct themselves that will tell us how democracy plays out in Egypt.”
While trying to allay American fears about their political ambitions, the Brotherhood representatives also wanted to send the message that Egypt is open for business. The Brotherhood desperately needs to funding and investment to short up Egypt’s economy, which is teetering on collapse.
The Brotherhood also wants to turn the corner on the case against American pro-democracy groups. The military council’s decision to prosecute the groups prompted outrage by members of Congress and threats to withhold US aid. In an interview with CNN, Dardery called the military’s treatment of NGO’s “a mistake” from start to finish, and said they would be welcomed back in Egypt, provided they respected a soon-to-be-passed law which will govern their work in the country.
Mutual suspicion by both the United States and the Brotherhood is likely to endure for some time. The Brotherhood delegation this week said while it wanted a partnership with America, but that the days of the United States buying Egyptian acquiescence are over. U.S. officials recognize the need to engage the Brotherhood, but will judge them not on their democratic election, but whether they bring democracy to Egypt.
“We don’t know these guys,” one senior official said. “We can’t see into their souls like President Bush did with (Russian President Vladmir) Putin. We have to judge them on what they do.”
CNN's Pam Benson contributed to this report.