U.S. should not fear the Egyptian street

It must have come as a surprise or shock for some Americans to learn that there are dictatorships in the Middle East beyond Iraq, under Saddam Hussein, and Iran. It must have been even more shocking to know that those countries (Tunisia and now Egypt) are U.S. allies. In the days and months to come we might add to the list more names like Algeria, another U.S. ally, and maybe even Jordan. It is true that not all allies are perfect. It is also true that the current crisis was ignited by the global recession, high food prices and lack of jobs, but the political system or lack thereof helped make what could have been a controlled fire seem poised to burn out of control.

Once in a while, the United States faces these moments of truth where an ally, be it Iran under the Shah, the Philippines under Marcos, Chile under Pinochet, or Zaire under Mobutu, are found to have been granted some sort of democracy exemption for being friends of the United States. The question is whether our security can be attained through friendship with the iron men of these countries at the expense of the masses.

Imagine what the Egyptian or Tunisian was thinking when Saddam Hussein's statue was being toppled while their leaders were being received in Washington. The people in these countries are very smart and can tell when one is being hypocritical, and that's how we lose the street.

We must realize that we must have the masses on our side to be safe, more than the elite, because they are the ones who are likely to be recruited by Al Qaeda, not the elite. We must see this as an opportunity and not try to find the next boogey man or group. The Muslim Brotherhood is not Al Qaeda; they are a political group in existence since the 1920s. What we can do is start a dialogue with them and other emerging groups. We should work to maintain a good relationship, ask that minorities like the Coptic Christians be free to worship, live and be respected, and also that the treaty with Israel remain intact.

There are no easy answers here, but we must learn to expect from our allies that which we demand of our foes. As we can see from the streets of Cairo, no condition is permanent, even for dictatorial allies.

Nonso Umunna, Baltimore

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