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.
President Obama had a direct conversation with Mubarak, and while I don't know what they talked about, I can't imagine it was about making any long-term plans for Mubarak. But look — a lot of times we get focused on the wrong thing. What Obama does or doesn't do is a part of the story, but the real story is what's happening on the streets of Cairo and Alexandria.
TR: In terms of what's happening on the street, there are different ideas about that. For example, you just said that it's inaccurate to say "pro-Mubarak protesters" …
KE: These people are agents provocateurs. There's evidence emerging now that they were orchestrated by the Interior Ministry, and I guarantee that as the days unfold, you will find more and more involvement by the Mubarak regime in connection with the abuse of the legitimate protesters.
TR: Meanwhile, some of your Republican colleagues have claimed that the anti-Mubarak protests are the work of the Muslim Brotherhood and radical extremists, and that we shouldn't support them. What are your thoughts on that end of the spectrum?
This is not about the Muslim Brotherhood. They did not start this thing. They joined this thing late. And yet people are trying to turn this into something about the Muslim Brotherhood. If we embrace the democratic movement now, we're not going to have to worry about who's in power because, whoever it is, they will remember that the U.S. was there when they needed us.
TR: Another argument has been that if we want to keep Egypt as a Middle Eastern ally, then it's understandable for President Obama to not distance himself from Mubarak completely. Do we need a partnership with him for strategic interests?
KE: Egypt isn't going anywhere. Who runs Egypt might change, but Egypt itself is not going anywhere. As a matter of fact, I hope that out of this, we stop doing foreign policy on the basis of personalities. When Musharraf was the leader of Pakistan, we had a Musharraf policy, not a Pakistan policy. We've had a Mubarak policy, not an Egypt policy.
We need to take the position, with every leader around the world, "We don't love you, and we don't hate you. We're interested in what's good for the United States. But we're here to support democratic institutions across the world, not individual personalities who we think are going to do what we want them to." We've got to make it clear that our relationship is with the Egyptian people, not any particular leader at any particular time.
TR: You began showing support for Egyptian protesters long before the Obama administration commented, urging the administration to intervene. Why are you attached to the situation, and why do you think more African-American voices have not spoken out?
KE: I'm not critical of anybody who hasn't done anything. People set their own priorities. But I have a lot of friends who are from Egypt, from the Arab world, and I think that I might have a higher level of sensitivity. I was watching the events in Tunisia, and when I talked to a friend about who they were going to support in the Super Bowl, they were like, "Hey man, Egypt is going to go next. I was just talking to people on the phone from home, and they're telling me that folks are getting riled up." I've been hearing about things in Egypt for a long time.
TR: What does Egypt's pro-democracy movement mean for the region? Do you think other countries in Africa and the Middle East are going to rise up against their governments?
KE: You know what Egyptians, and many people in the Arab world, call Egypt? Om El Donya. Om means mother. El Donya means the world. So they call Egypt the "Mother of the World." This has to do with the role Egypt has played historically in the whole world. Whatever happens in Egypt is going to radiate throughout the Arab world. If I were a leader in the Arab world, I'd be thinking about how to open up avenues of democracy for people. I think anybody who doesn't do that can find themselves in a very difficult situation in the not-too-distant future.
Cynthia Gordy is The Root's Washington reporter.