CAIRO: A top US Democratic congressman met a senior figure of the officially banned Muslim Brotherhood, US officials and spokespersons for the Islamist group said.
Visiting US House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, who ranks second in the House of Representatives, met with the head of the Muslim Brotherhood s parliamentary bloc, Mohammed Saad el-Katatni, twice on Thursday – once at parliament and then at the home of the US ambassador to Egypt, Brotherhood spokesman Hamdi Hassan said Saturday.
US Embassy spokesman John Berry would only confirm that Hoyer met with el-Katatni at US Ambassador Francis Ricciardone s home at a reception with other politicians and parliament members.
Hoyer, who also met with President Hosni Mubarak during his visit, left Egypt on Friday. A telephone message left with his spokeswoman Saturday was not immediately returned.
Calls to el-Katatni also went unanswered Saturday.
US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, a Republican, has refused in the past to meet with the Muslim Brotherhood, the country s largest opposition group.
But Berry said US government policy does not bar meetings with the Brotherhood s members of parliament and Hoyer s talks with el-Katatni were not a change in USpolicy toward the group.
It s our diplomatic practice around the world to meet with parliamentarians, be they members of political parties or independents, Berry said.
Once notorious for assassinations and militant activity, the Brotherhood renounced violence in the 1970s. Though officially banned since 1954, it is tolerated by the government and in recent years, has focused on politics and social welfare.
The group got its biggest boost in 2005 when its members, who ran as independents, became the largest parliament opposition bloc, winning one-fifth of its 454 seats. But as the Brotherhood s popularity increased, so did government crackdowns on its supporters.
The State Department and the White House had no comment Saturday on Hoyer s meetings with the group.
Berry stressed that Hoyer met with el-Katatni in his capacity as an independent member of Egyptian parliament.
He would not say what the two discussed.
Hassan said the two lawmakers discussed developments in the Middle East, the Brotherhood s vision and opposition movements in Egypt. He said the two met privately at the ambassador s home and with other members of Hoyer s bipartisan delegation and Egyptian lawmakers at the parliament building.
Hoyer s meeting came just a day after the leader of the US House, Democrat Nancy Pelosi, drew sharp criticism from the Bush administration for meeting with Syrian President Bashar Assad in Damascus.
Pelosi and other Democrats argue the administration needs to engage Syria to resolve some of the most intractable problems in the Middle East, such as Iraq and the Israeli-Arab conflict. But the Bush administration rejects that approach, accusing Syria of exacerbating the troubles in neighboring Iraq and Lebanon.
Jon Alterman, a Middle East specialist at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, said Bush administration officials may have avoided meeting Muslim Brotherhood members because it could strain relations with the secular Egyptian government, one of the closest US allies in the Arab world.
The difficulty when it gets to Egypt is that the Brotherhood is not a legal group within Egypt and the US government is wary of violating laws in countries in which it operates, he said.