WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The number two official in the U.S. State Department met with a leader of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood on Wednesday but chose not to see a more hardline Islamist group that has also fared well in Egypt’s first free legislative vote in decades.
Deputy Secretary of State Bill Burns met Mohamed Morsi, the head of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), in Washington’s highest level outreach to the Islamist group as part of a series of meetings with Egyptian political figures in Cairo, the State Department said.
“From our perspective it was an opportunity to hear from them and to reinforce our expectation that all the major parties will support human rights, tolerance, rights of women and will also uphold Egypt’s existing international obligations,” State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said.
Burns, the principal deputy to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, is the highest-level U.S. official to meet with Muslim Brotherhood officials since Washington tweaked a long-standing ban on formal contacts with the Islamist group earlier this year.
Islamists including the Muslim Brotherhood hope to cement control over Egypt’s lower house of parliament as a final phase of voting began on Tuesday.
Banned under former President Hosni Mubarak, a strong U.S. ally, the Brotherhood has exploited a well-organized support base and projects it will take some 41 percent of the 498 elected seats in the assembly’s lower house.
Nuland said Burns did not meet hardline Salafists, which have also logged strong showings in early rounds of voting and espouse an even more conservative view of Islam that some have compared to Afghanistan’s Taliban.
“He was not able to meet with all of the parties so this was a selective group of some of them,” Nuland said, adding that the Salafists had not been invited.
“This was a chance to get to know some of the people that he wanted to get to know.”
Burns’ talks with Brotherhood representatives follows Washington’s decision last year to drop a ban on formal meetings with the group in recognition of its political role in Egypt’s democratic transformation.
The shift, which looked likely to upset Israel and its U.S. supporters, was first reported by Reuters in June.
The Brotherhood long ago renounced violence as a means to achieve political change in Egypt. It will have a big role in shaping a new constitution, making it a force to be reckoned with for the country’s military rulers.
The Brotherhood has sought to craft a moderate image, distancing itself from street protests by pro-democracy activists demanding the army relinquish power immediately.
Egypt’s staggered three-stage parliamentary election began on November 28 and drew an unprecedented turnout. The lower house will hold its first session on January 23.
Nuland said that Burns also met senior Egyptian officials to discuss recent government raids on U.S.-backed non-governmental organizations with Washington has called ”unacceptable.
“He reaffirmed our strong support (for the groups),” Nuland said. “He also pushed hard with the government to try to resolve the remaining problems and we do think we are making some headway, but we have not yet resolved all the issues.”
(Reporting By Andrew Quinn; Editing by Vicki Allen)
This version corrects 10th paragraph to show policy change occurred last year