Responding to a question while visiting Istanbul, Clinton did not mention the Brotherhood by name, saying only that the U.S. would “watch what all of the political actors do and hold them accountable for their actions.”
“We want to see Egypt move forward in a democratic transition – and what that means is that you do not and cannot discriminate against religious minorities, women, political opponents,” she said.
Clinton was asked whether the Brotherhood’s announcement was cause for concern, given its earlier pledges, but did not answer directly.
She expressed the hope – again – that the outcome of the political transition in Egypt would meet the aspirations of those who took to the streets of Cairo early last year to call for the departure of autocratic president Hosni Mubarak.
“We really hope the Egyptian people get what they demonstrated for in Tahrir Square, which is the kind of open, inclusive, pluralistic democracy that really respects the rights and dignity of every single Egyptian,” she said.
The Muslim Brotherhood played a relatively limited role in the anti-Mubarak protest movement – which was led by youth and reform-minded groups – but has been its biggest beneficiary by far.
Along with a smaller Islamist faction, the Salafist Nour party, the Brotherhood now dominates both chambers of parliament, and key legislative committees, as well as an assembly established late last month to draft a new constitution. (At least 24 non-Islamist lawmakers have said they will boycott the assembly over what they view as Islamist domination of the body.)
Just weeks after Mubarak was toppled, the Brotherhood’s decision-making shura decided not to field a candidate in the presidential election, a decision it reaffirmed last April.
Last month, however, it began hinting that it may reverse those earlier promises, and the decision was formalized with an announcement Saturday night that its deputy supreme guide, Khairat el-Shater, will compete in the election, scheduled for late May.
Muslim Brotherhood supreme guide Mohamed Badie said his organization has reversed course on the presidential race because of significant changes in the political scene.
This is a likely reference to a public dispute between the Brotherhood and ruling military council over the military-appointed prime minister, Kamal el-Ganzouri, and his cabinet. The Brotherhood wants the military to dismiss the cabinet and has offered to form a new Brotherhood-led government, citing its strong position in parliament.
‘The teachings and sublime values of Islam’
Another senior Brotherhood leader, Mohamed Morsy, told the press conference that the organization has “chosen the path of the presidency not because we are greedy for power but because we have a majority in parliament which is unable to fulfill its duties in parliament.”
“We assure our noble people that the Brotherhood does not seek power in order to obtain high office or to achieve private gains or prestige, but certainly seek to achieve the purpose for which purpose for which it was founded and for which it worked for many years, which is pleasing God Almighty by guiding the people to the teachings and sublime values of Islam, and working to achieve comprehensive reform, in which all the homeland’s citizens should share,” the organization said in a statement.
It said it was confident of winning the election.
Brotherhood Secretary-General Mahmoud Hussein said in a comments posted on the organization’s Web site that it did not expect its decision to run a candidate in the presidential election to have negative repercussions internationally.
“The whole world knows who the Muslim Brotherhood is, and knows the views and stances of the Muslim Brotherhood and the FJP [the Brotherhood’s political wing, the Freedom and Justice Party], through many direct meetings watched closely by the media and the press,” Hussein said.
“When the Egyptian people have made their choice for president, I believe no-one should stand in their way. For this is the will of the people, the choice of democracy.”
Shater, a wealthy, 62-year-old businessman, was imprisoned several times during the Mubarak era.
The military council has pledged to relinquish power to an elected president. Should Shater win the presidential election, the Islamist party looks set to dominate both the executive and legislative arms of government.
Some analysts told Egyptian media the Brotherhood maneuver could backfire by splitting the Islamist vote – there are several Islamist aspirants – and handing victory to a candidate linked to the ousted regime, such as foreign minister and Arab League secretary-general Amr Moussa.
Clinton’s cautious reaction to the Brotherhood announcement is in line with the administration’s response in general to the rise of Islamist movements as a result of the so-called “Arab spring,” whether in Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, Morocco or elsewhere: Parties’ names and ideological identities are less important than what they do.
“Principles matter to this president, not parties,” White House press secretary Jay Carney said in November. Referring to the Egyptian Brotherhood, he said it was “unfair to assume that any party that has a religious affiliation cannot adhere to democratic principles. It is simply not the case and has not been borne out by the facts.”
“What parties call themselves is less important to us than what they actually do,” Clinton said in a speech earlier that month, saying that an adherence to democratic principles was the key issue. “The suggestion that faithful Muslims cannot thrive in a democracy is insulting, dangerous and wrong.”
The administration has similarly played down associated concerns about Islamic law (shari’a) tenets forming the basis of laws and constitutions in the countries under transition.
Amid questions relating to post-Gadaffi Libya in particular, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said last October the term shari’a “has a broad application and is understood differently in different places and by different commentators.”