Egypt criticized a meeting of four U.S. members of Congress and the head of the Muslim Brotherhood's bloc in Parliament, accusing the U.S. of having double standards for meeting with the banned Egyptian group but refusing to meet with the militant Palestinian group Hamas.
The congressional delegation, headed by North Carolina Democrat David Price, held talks with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak early Sunday before heading to Parliament to meet a group of lawmakers that included the Brotherhood's Mohammed Saad el-Katatni.
"The United States says that it doesn't establish relations with a banned group, whether in Egypt or outside Egypt," said Mubarak's spokesman Suleiman Awaad. "The U.S. says it is meeting with the Brotherhood as Parliament members, but doesn't make the same distinction and refuses to talk with Hamas, who is heading the Palestinian government and is occupying the prime minister's seat."
Neither the U.S. Embassy in Cairo nor the congressional delegation were immediately available for comment.
Hamas won a majority in the 2006 legislative elections in the Palestinian territories, but the U.S. has refused to meet directly with the group because Washington considers it a terrorist organization.
Hamas is loosely affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood, and some of the militant group's founding members were part of the organization in Egypt and Jordan. However, the Brotherhood, once notorious for assassinations and militant activity, renounced violence in the 1970s. Hamas continues to advocate violence as part of its resistance against Israeli occupation.
U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, the foreign minister in the Republican administration of U.S. President George W. Bush, has refused in the past to meet with the Brotherhood, and Price's delegation was not sent by the White House.
The delegation's meeting came less than two months after U.S. House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, who ranks second in the House of Representatives, met with el-Katatni twice - once at Parliament and then at the home of the U.S. ambassador to Egypt.
After Hoyer's meetings, U.S. Embassy spokesman John Berry said U.S. government policy does not bar meetings with the Brotherhood's members of Parliament and the talks were not a change in U.S. policy toward the group.
The Egyptian government didn't comment on the April meetings, but they were harshly criticized by state controlled anti-Brotherhood media.
Though officially banned since 1954, the Brotherhood is tolerated within limits by the government and in recent years has focused on politics and social welfare.
The group got its biggest boost in 2005 when its members, who ran as independents, became the largest Parliament opposition bloc, winning one-fifth of its 454 seats. But as the Brotherhood's popularity increased, so did government crackdowns on its supporters.
The government accuses the group of seeking to take over the country and passed a series of constitutional amendments in March that further curtailed the Brotherhood's ability to participate in politics.
"The U.S. is free to do whatever it wants, but we will do whatever we want to protect Egyptian national security," Awaad told reporters at the presidential palace. "Whoever thinks that Egypt's national security is less important than other countries, including the U.S., is very wrong," he added.
El-Katanti said Sunday's talks with the delegation focused on current challenges across the Middle East, not on Egypt.
"We met with the delegation for more than an hour and we discussed the American policy in the Middle East: Palestine, Iraq and Iran's nuclear issue," he said. "The talks didn't address internal Egyptian issues or political reform."
The delegation also included Nebraska Republican Jeff Fortenberry, West Virginia Democrat Nick Rahall and Wisconsin Democrat Gwen Moore. The group is on a Middle East tour that will take them to Lebanon, Israel and the Palestinian territories, Price told reporters.
The Brotherhood advocates implementation of Islamic law but says it wants democratic reforms in Egypt, where Mubarak, 79, has had a quarter-century of authoritarian rule.
More than 400 Brotherhood members, including leading figures, students and bloggers, have been arrested in a crackdown since December, when Brotherhood students carried out a military-like parade. That prompted government accusations that the movement was forming an armed wing, providing students with combat training, knives and chains. The group denies forming a militia.
The United States has pressured Mubarak regarding other opposition figures, including Ayman Nour, a secular politician who was jailed after challenging Mubarak in the 2005 presidential elections. But Washington has remained silent on similar campaigns against the Brotherhood.