CAIRO, Egypt – A top U.S. Democratic congressman met a leading member of Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood, an outlawed opposition group, during a recent visit to the country, the Islamic fundamentalist group and U.S. officials said Saturday.
House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer met with the Muslim Brotherhood's parliament leader, Mohammed Saad el-Katatni, twice on Thursday — once at the parliament building and then at the home of the U.S. ambassador to Egypt, said Brotherhood spokesman Hamdi Hassan.
U.S. Embassy spokesman John Berry would only confirm that Hoyer, who represents Maryland, met with el-Katatni at U.S. Ambassador Francis Ricciardone's home at a reception with other politicians and parliament members.
Though officially banned since 1954, the Brotherhood is tolerated by the government and has become Egypt's largest opposition group and President Hosni Mubarak's most powerful rival.
Its members, who run as independents, make up the largest opposition bloc in parliament, holding about one-fifth of its 454 seats.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has refused in the past to meet with the Muslim Brotherhood.
But Berry said U.S. government policy does not bar meetings with Brotherhood members of parliament and Hoyer's talks with el-Katatni were not a change in U.S. policy toward the group.
"It's our diplomatic practice around the world to meet with parliamentarians, be they members of political parties or independents," Berry said. "We haven't changed our policy with regard to the Muslim Brotherhood as an organization."
The State Department had no comment Saturday on Hoyer's meetings with the group.
Berry stressed that Hoyer met with el-Katatni in his capacity as an independent member of Egyptian parliament. He would not say what the two discussed.
Hassan said the two lawmakers discussed developments in the Middle East, the "Brotherhood's vision" and opposition movements in Egypt. He said the two met privately at the ambassador's home and with other members of Hoyer's bipartisan delegation and Egyptian lawmakers at the parliament building.
Hoyer's meeting came just a day after Democratic Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi drew sharp criticism from the Bush administration for meeting with Syrian President Bashar Assad in Damascus.
Pelosi and other Democrats argue the administration needs to engage Syria to resolve some of the most intractable problems in the Middle East, such as Iraq and the Israeli-Arab conflict. But the Bush administration rejects that approach, accusing Syria of exacerbating the troubles in neighboring Iraq and Lebanon.
Jon Alterman, a Mideast specialist at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, said Bush administration officials may have avoided meeting Muslim Brotherhood members because that could strain relations with the secular Egyptian government, one of the closest U.S. allies in the Middle East.
"The difficulty when it gets to Egypt is that the Brotherhood is not a legal group within Egypt and the U.S. government is wary of violating laws in countries in which it operates," he told The Associated Press on Saturday.
"The larger constraint on our willingness to meet the Brotherhood is the Egyptian government's unease with our government's meeting with the Brotherhood."
Hoyer, who also met with Mubarak during his visit, left Egypt on Friday. A telephone message left with his spokeswoman Saturday was not immediately returned. Calls to el-Katatni also went unanswered Saturday.
The Muslim Brotherhood's parliament bloc Web site said the meetings were not part of an effort to engage the United States.
"The Brotherhood not only has reservations on dialogue with the Americans but rejects the unfair American policy in the region," the Web site said.
Washington has been pressing Mubarak for years to enact reforms as part of a Bush administration campaign to spread democracy in the Mideast. And Rice expressed concern in March that "all voices" were not being heard in deliberations over amending the constitution as part of those reforms.
"There's been a growing sense in Washington over 20 years that Islamic politics are here to stay, and the U.S. interest in promoting democracy around the world means we should be engaging with a growing number of actors," Alterman said.