Inevitable: Muslim Brotherhood at the White House this week for talks on Egypt; Update: Salafist presidential candidate disqualified?

I’d love to toss rhetorical grenades at the Democrats for this but a Republican White House will have no choice but to gladhand the MB too. Behold the new normal:

The meeting on Tuesday with low-level National Security Council staff was part of a series of US efforts to broaden engagement with new and emerging political parties following Egypt’s revolution last year, a US official said.

The White House pointed out that Republican Senators Lindsey Graham and John McCain, and other US lawmakers and officials had also met with Brotherhood representatives in Egypt and elsewhere in recent months.

“We believe that it is in the interest of the United States to engage with all parties that are committed to democratic principles, especially nonviolence,” said National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor.

I can’t find the passage but I remember writing way back when that the surprisingly strong showing by the Salafists in Egypt’s parliamentary elections was going to end up replicating the Mubarak dynamic in U.S./Egyptian relations. For 30 years, we propped up Mubarak for fear of what the Brotherhood might do if it seized power. For the next 30, it looks like we’ll be propping up the Brotherhood for fear of what the Salafists might do if they seize power. Lord only knows what even nuttier group of nuts is set to emerge as the even more fanatic alternative to the Salafists in case they win parliament. That’s Middle East “stability” in a nutshell: You might as well make nice with the cretin in charge since there’s bound to be some worse cretin angling for his job.

The job in this case is the Egyptian presidency:

Hazem Salah Abu Ismail is an old-school Islamist.

He wants to move toward abolishing Egypt’s peace treaty with Israel and cites Iran as a successful model of independence from Washington. He worries about the mixing of the genders in the workplace and women’s work outside the home. And he promises to bring extraordinary prosperity to Egypt, if it turns its back on trade with the West…

The Brotherhood, which leads Parliament, had pledged not to seek the presidency for fear of provoking a backlash from the Egyptian military and the West. But Mr. Abu Ismail’s surge raises the prospect that the winner might not be a more secular or liberal figure, but a strident Islamist who opposes the Brotherhood’s pragmatic focus on stable relations with the United States and Israel and free-market economics.

Mr. Abu Ismail poses a subtler threat, too, challenging the Brotherhood’s status as the main voice of Islamist politics in Egypt and threatening to undermine its campaign to set aside Western fears of political Islam.

If Ismail wins he could become an Egyptian Ahmadinejad, relentlessly demagoging the U.S. and Israel and tilting Egyptian politics towards Salafist-style fundamentalism. Result: The U.S. is kinda sorta supporting the Brotherhood’s candidate, Khairat al-Shater, whom the Times claims is in “regular contact” with the U.S. ambassador to Egypt. Problem is, his candidacy will create problems for the MB no matter how it turns out. If he loses to Ismail, it’s a humiliation and the best evidence yet that the Brotherhood won’t be able to triangulate between the west and Islamic fundies as easily as it might have hoped. If he wins, suddenly the MB has total control of Egypt’s elected offices, which means total responsibility for turning the country’s economy around. If they fail, and they almost certainly will given the country’s institutional problems, that could lead to a bigger Salafist surge down the line when voters toss them out. Tony Karon adds another wrinkle:

Many in Egypt saw the Brotherhood’s decision as a panicky response to fears that the generals might use the election as an opportunity to put one over their most powerful challenger — rumors have abounded lately in Cairo about the possibility of a presidential run by Omar Suleiman, Mubarak’s former intelligence chief and figurative “Hand of the King.” Alternately, the generals could throw the military’s not inconsiderable weight behind a more popular nationalist candidate such as Moussa…

A case could be made that forcing the Brotherhood to take responsibility for governance would have a sobering and moderating effect, reinforcing its move towards the political center — as opposed to having the hedge available if it remains the largest party but declines to accept executive power. That’s cold comfort to the movement’s critics, however, who fear the concentration of power in its hands will allow the Brotherhood to impose a more socially conservative and sectarian vision on Egypt. Coptic Christians recently withdrew from Constitutional Assembly, following liberal groups that had already done so, to protest the Brotherhood’s heavy-handed domination of that body.

I wonder, actually, if the ruling military junta wouldn’t prefer to see Ismail and the Salafists win since that’ll give them a handier pretext to revert to a true Mubarak dynamic by deposing him later and ruling indefinitely. The west might object if they pulled that on the Brotherhood since no one’s quite sure yet what sort of relations the MB will pursue with its neighbors. If it maintains a cold peace with Israel and follows Erdogan’s Islamist lead in working with the U.S., the White House may calculate that it’s worth having them in power as an example to Islamists elsewhere that they too can be accepted internationally if they play nice with others. But if the Salafists win and start pounding the table for war with Israel, everyone will panic and look the other way as the army does what it needs to do to neutralize them. Assuming, after months of bitter opposition from the Egyptian public, that it’s still capable of doing it.

Read Marc Lynch’s piece at Foreign Policy for more detail on Shater’s role in the Brotherhood and how damaging a loss would be to the group’s air of invincibility. If you’re wondering what they were talking about with the White House, wonder no further. Exit quotation: “There can be no doubting that with Shater, the Brotherhood has gone all-in for victory. And that in turn puts the organization’s reputation very much on the line, win or lose.”

Update: Oh, the irony. So sweet. So syrupy sweet:

An ultraconservative Islamist whose denunciations of American power have helped propel him to the front of Egypt’s presidential race appears to have been tripped up by his own American connections.

The mother of the candidate, Sheik Hazem Salah Abu Ismail, became an American citizen before she died, according to California public records and a Los Angeles voter registration Web site. That would disqualify Mr. Abu Ismail from running for president under current Egyptian law. And his exit would again scramble the race to become Egypt’s first president since the ouster of Hosni Mubarak and to potentially set the template for the government of a major Arab state.

New dilemma for the U.S.: Are we still on board with the Brotherhood’s candidate if the Salafist menace has suddenly been neutralized on a technicality?