Rep. Keith Ellison: We Should Support the Egyptian People

As both a House Foreign Affairs Committee member and a Muslim, the Minnesota congressman has a unique vantage point on the Egyptian crisis. He says the real story in Egypt isn't about Obama -- it's about what's happening on the streets of Cairo.

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As violent clashes between pro- and anti-government protesters in Egypt have become the leading images of the country's conflict, eyes are also on President Barack Obama. Publicly, his administration has taken the broad view that Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak should transition to a new government, but officials are reportedly working behind the scenes to persuade Mubarak to step down now.

Democratic Rep. Keith Ellison of Minnesota has been offering his take on the situation (thanks to Twitter) since the protests began. The Root spoke with Ellison, a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee and a frequent traveler to the Arab world, about Obama's response; overblown conspiracy theories; and why Egyptians, not Washington, will decide how this all turns out.

The Root: President Obama has been accused of being too slow in calling for the removal of Mubarak. In light of violence against Egyptian protesters, should Obama be taking a harder stand?

Keith Ellison: I think that the American people ought to be taking the stand that we support the Egyptian people and we support their call for Mubarak to step down now. We condemn his orchestration of violence against the pro-democracy protesters. We object to those so-called pro-Mubarak demonstrators being called "pro-Mubarak demonstrators." They are agents of the regime who are trying to maintain a 30-year-old oppressive situation in Egypt. And we certainly object to the arrests and assaults of journalists who are the ones letting us know what's going on.

TR: So far Obama has stopped short of publicly saying that Mubarak should step down now. Do you think it's important for him to say that? 

KE: I don't want to turn this into what Obama should do or shouldn't do. I don't believe in messiah figures. I believe in the action of the people. Obama's doing what he thinks he should do. But I'm calling for an immediate stepping down of Mubarak because that's what the people of Egypt want.

I do think that we need to review our aid package to Egypt, since it's all military. People are getting attacked, and the weaponry being used has "Made in America" stamped on it, either literally or figuratively. We shouldn't be party to Mubarak's abuse of his own people. But those are my thoughts. I think Obama's used pretty strong diplomatic language in saying that the transition needs to take place now, and I hope he increases his forcefulness. But the truth is, the president of the United States can't just say who's in and who's out. This is a true people's movement.

Historically, one of the problems has been that Western governments have tried to pick leaders for other countries. So let's stop doing that. Let's do the right thing. Let's get on the right side of history and say that we stand with the legitimate claims of the people.

TR: How influential, then, is America in how this all turns out? Are the people of Egypt looking to President Obama for anything?

KE: Of course there's influence. And yes, the people are looking to the president of the United States. That's why I'm happy that there have been so many solidarity marches around the United States with the people of Egypt. And I am happy that the president has said that he wants the transition to begin now.