By Reem Abdellatif
CAIRO: Just a day after the Muslim Brotherhood unexpectedly announced they would nominate a candidate for Egypt’s upcoming presidential race, a US congressional delegation met with Khairat Al-Shater, the group’s contender, on Monday, underlining that their talks were “interesting and enlightening.”
In a series of visits to Egypt over the past year, the five-member delegation, headed primarily by representatives from the Democratic Party, said they had pre-scheduled the meeting with Al-Shater, the Brotherhood’s main source of funding and a leading figure in the group’s Freedom and Justice Party.
“This was a prescheduled meeting, I would not read much into it,” said Gerry E. Connolly, a congressman who serves on two subcommittees, terrorism, nonproliferation and trade in the Middle East and South Asia.
Before their conference with members of local and foreign press during the roundtable discussions, the American delegation also met with several members of parliament to discuss the possibility of boosting economic relations with Egypt with hopes to enact the Free Trade agreement in the near future.
Lead by Congressman David Dreier who serves in the US House of Representatives to “promote democracy” abroad and secure the American borders, the delegation said they were “happy” to meet with Al-Shater.
The Brotherhood’s nomination of Al-Shater, which was somewhat of a surprise to the public, is expected to serve members of the old regime who are currently running in the presidential race. It also created a split within the Islamist group’s 108 member Shoura Council, with 56 members favoring the nomination and 52 opposing.
Hoping to get past “superficial” discussions, officials discussed Egypt’s transition to democracy, stressing the importance of “inclusion” in the constitution assembly.
“Democracy is not just about free and fair elections, but what goes on between those elections,” said David Price, a Democrat representative from the state of North Carolina who is also a ranking member of the Homeland Security Appropriations Subcommittee.
Price added that Egypt must focus on establishing the right kind of legislation laws that are truly “inclusive” of all aspects in society.
Price pointed out that Egypt’s current parliament, which is made up of 70 percent Islamist and about 10 women does have an “inclusive” spirit.
After meeting with Parliament and political parties, the delegation said they found that all of Egypt’s factions are ready to work together.
“As we see some people walk away from the constitution’s discussions, we found a willingness from people to work to work together,” said Erik Paulsen.
The discussions also come shortly after most liberal and moderate parties, including the Coptic Church, withdrew from the 100-member panel in protest of the weak representation of minorities in the Constituent Assembly, leaving the panel to a majority of Islamists.
US officials also pointed out they previously met with several presidential hopefuls in Egypt, including Amr Moussa.
In a series of discussions over the past year with the country’s ruling military council and the people’s assembly, the delegation discussed several key issues including the Camp David Treaty, the Muslim Brotherhood relationship with Israel, and boosting bilateral trade.
The delegation visited Egypt after their talks with Libya’s transitional council in Tripoli. After concluding their talks in Egypt, the congressional mission will have headed to Kosovo and Macedonia on Tuesday.
As Islamist parties rise to power through elections in post-uprising Egypt as well as Tunisia, two of the region’s most strategic nations, the future of Israel remains a looming question.
“There will continue to be discussions and there is broad support for and independent, free Palestinian state,” said Dreier. “We hope to see the completion of that, Egypt has always played an important role in these peace talks and we hope it will continue to happen.”
“Camp David has been very successful to bringing peace,” said Connolly.
“You can’t overstate the importance of Camp David,” he stressed.
While Egypt continues to see its local currency depreciate and the country loses 80 percent of its foreign reserves since the 18-day uprising ended in Feb. 2011, Dreier stressed that he hoped US and Egypt would be able to further strengthen economic ties.
According to Dreier, Egypt has lost two million jobs since Feb. 2011.
Therefore, overshadowing much of the dialogue between Egyptian and American officials was the future of US aid to Egypt, which is a highly “unpopular idea” among Americans in the United States, according to Dreier.
“Assistance to Egypt is not popular back home,” Dreier reiterated during the conference.
“With a 14 percent unemployment rate in the US, people don’t like the idea of having their tax dollars going abroad, but I am personally pleased that Secretary Clinton was able to persuade the congress that the [aid] package will continue to Egypt.”
Dreier, who is a board member of the International Republican Institute (IRI), which was shut down in February after a series of investigations which were seen as a crackdown on foreign NGOs, also served as part of the parliamentary elections’ monitoring committee during the first round.
Dreier pointed out that he hopes Egypt and the US can get past the issue, calling it a “crisis.”