CAIRO - Assured by the Muslim Brotherhood's repeated assurances that it wants to build a modern democratic Egypt, the United States is shifting its decades-long policy on Islamists to forge closer ties with the country's most powerful group.
It would be totally impractical not to engage with the Brotherhood because of US security and regional interests in Egypt, a senior administration official involved in shaping the new policy told The New York Times on Wednesday, January 4.
There doesn't seem to me to be any other way to do it, except to engage with the party that won the election.
The Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party has won half of all votes in the first two rounds of Egypt's first parliamentary elections since the overthrow of president Hosni Mubarak.
The FJP has the chance to extend its lead to a clear majority in the final round of the ballot, which began on Tuesday.
Before Mubarak's fall, Washington has maintained a policy of having no official contacts with the Muslim Brotherhood.
US diplomats were only allowed to deal with Brotherhood members of parliament who had won seats as independents -- a diplomatic fiction that allowed them to keep lines of communication open.
But after the Egyptian revolution, the Obama administration had little choice but to engage the Brotherhood directly, given its political prominence after Mubarak's ouster.
A series of high-profile meetings were held in recent weeks between US officials and Brotherhood leaders.
The policy shift was seen as a result of the Brotherhood's repeated assurances that it wants to build a modern democracy in Egypt.
They've been very specific about conveying a moderate message on regional security and domestic issues, and economic issues, as well, the US official said.
Some opine that the Obama administration had no other option but to engage with the Brotherhood in light of the rise of Islamist parties in the Middle East.
You're certainly going to have to figure out how to deal with democratic governments that don't espouse every policy or value you have, said Senator John Kerry, the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee.
Islamist parties have come to power in several Arab countries as Tunisia, Egypt, Morocco following a series of popular unrest last year.
Last month, Senator Kerry joined ambassador Anne W. Patterson in meeting Brotherhood's party leaders in Cairo.
He said Brotherhood leaders expressed during the meetings their eagerness to work with the US and other Western countries, especially in economic areas.
They certainly expressed a direction that shouldn't be a challenge to us, provided they follow through, he said.
Obviously the proof will be in the pudding.
Established in 1928 in Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood is the most powerful opposition force in Egypt.
For years, the Muslim Brotherhood was banned and its leaders were repressed by governments since the 1950s.
But the group has emerged as the most powerful group after the February revolution that ousted Mubarak.
Brotherhood leaders often talk publicly here of their eagerness for Egypt to have cooperative relations as equals with the United States.
Kerry compared the US outreach to the Brotherhood to former President Ronald Reagan's arms negotiations with the Soviet Union.
The United States needs to deal with the new reality, he said.
And it needs to step up its game.
Shadi Hamid, director of research at the Brookings Doha Center in Qatar, believes that Washington missed chances to build ties to moderate Islamists earlier.
Now the Brotherhood knows it is in a stronger position and it is almost as if the US is chasing them and they are sitting pretty, he said.
But what can the U.S. do, intervene and change the election results? he asked.The only alternative is to be against democracy in the region.