Official US government engagement with Islamic political parties has long been a controversial subject. In April, however, mid-level White House administrators officially met with a delegation from Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood.
President Obama’s move was considered bold by the Republican Party, despite precedents set by both Republican and Democratic administrators and Senators such as Lindsey Graham (R-SC), John McCain (R-AZ), and John Kerry (D-MA), who have all already met with representatives from the Muslim Brotherhood.
Because of the rise of new Islamic parties to leadership, especially in Tunisia and Egypt, US engagement has become an important campaign issue in for the US presidential candidates. But what is needed instead is for both sides to frame their relationship as an opportunity to increase economic engagement.
For the United States, the next step is to move past worrying about the degree to which Islam may influence party leaders to looking at a country’s potential as an economic partner. If the United States were to do this, it would gain access to the Arab world’s largest market: Egypt, which presents a large market for American goods as well as a base for foreign direct investment.
In fact, both Tunisia and Egypt have the potential to provide access to Africa’s emerging markets. Since 2011, discussions on a Free Trade Agreement with Egypt have emerged in the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and such an agreement could provide a new framework to benefit both countries through increased trade. US businesses could benefit from the Egyptian markets while Egypt would in turn be able to export to the United States more easily.
In Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood leads the Freedom and Justice Party, which holds 235 of 498 seats in the Egyptian parliament; its candidate Muhammad Mursi was also elected president. The party succeeded for a few reasons. Beginning in 1948, the Muslim Brotherhood was forced underground and participated in non-political spheres of influence, like health and literacy programs, allowing them to connect with Egyptians on a local level. The Freedom and Justice Party then emerged in 2011. For now, Egyptian voters feel that Islamic parties are accountable to them after elections, and that they will be reviewed in the next set of elections if they falter.
Tunisia’s Ennahda party was established in 1981 and banned by former president Ben Ali in 1992. It is seen by some as a credible party that understands average people’s concerns, such as corruption, which may have contributed to its success in the 2011 elections.
Yet just because both Egypt’s Freedom and Justice Party and Tunisia’s Ennahda are Islamic parties does not mean they will drive both countries towards a parallel political and economic destiny. Nor will both push for the same relationship with the United States. Middle East experts, like Stephen King and Samer Shehata of Georgetown University, point out that the factors at stake in Egypt are more complicated than in Tunisia.
In terms of foreign policy, civil society and political leaders in Egypt are questioning its increasing dependency on US economic assistance through foreign aid. In contrast, Tunisia has been more amendable to United States relations, for instance by welcoming the Peace Corps. Tunisian NGOs are concerned about youth unemployment and many welcome the technical training programs supported by the US Peace Corps, which are designed to equip youth with skills to become more employable. The United States has also provided aid for debt relief and civil society programs.
When it comes to the political engagement between the United States and the newly elected parties in Tunisia and Egypt, the focus should be on the potential economic gains. Whether in the United States, Egypt or Tunisia, people participate in politics so their voices are represented, and to improve their chances to access opportunities.
The success of the Muslim Brotherhood and Ennahda has demonstrated that voters are ready to elevate social and economic welfare concerns. Now it is time for the Muslim Brotherhood and Ennahda to demonstrate that they can access more economic opportunities for their people, and for the United States to prove that it engages with democratically elected leaders, and that such engagement can be in the interest of both sides.
n Mehrunisa Qayyum is an international development consultant and the Founder of PITAPOLICY Consulting.