The Opportunity and Peril for the U.S. in Egypt’s Rebirth (The Seattle Times)

(Feb. 4, 2011) “The birth pangs of a new Middle East.” That was how then-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice described Israeli bombing of Beirut during the 2006 war with the Shiite militia Hezbollah, which left more than 1,000 dead.

Arab television juxtaposed that quote with a photo of a newborn baby, torn from its mother’s womb and riddled with shrapnel. It could not have had a more chilling effect on attitudes toward America among Arabs and across the Muslim world.

Today, the Middle East is enduring the agony of another rebirth, one that offers the U.S. a unique opportunity to re-craft its relationship with the Arab people and the entire Muslim world.

The message is written in blood on the streets of Cairo: The old ways are dead. Arab regimes can no longer carry out business as usual. Nor can the U.S.

Support for Arab autocrats is at the root of anti-American sentiment in the region. U.S. backing for the House of Saud and Hosni Mubarak is what initially drove Osama bin Laden and his Egyptian deputy under their doctrine of attacking the “far enemy” to cripple the one “near.”

For the broader Arab public, America’s tendency to espouse democratic ideals while propping up dictators and rejecting the outcome of democratic elections because “the wrong” people are elected — as with Hamas in Palestine and Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood — is the height of hypocrisy.

Mubarak is history. The violence playing out on the streets of Cairo, whether orchestrated by the regime or simply facilitated, represents the death throes of an era, a concentrated dose of the oppression and humiliation Egyptians have endured for decades. The irony: His announcement that he would not run in the September elections may well have satisfied the majority of Egyptians, taking the wind out of the protests. Now, he is in their cross hairs.

The attacks by pro-Mubarak thugs “caused more bitterness and distrust, and turned a lot of this into a personal grudge,” blogger Miral Brinjy messaged me as she prepared to head back to Tahrir Square Wednesday night.

Watching the blowback, other Arab regimes are already changing their ways. Yemen’s president announced he will not run for re-election, Jordan’s king replaced his Cabinet and even Syria’s Bashar Assad, who inherited office from his father, is talking reform.

For the U.S., this is a moment of truth. In his landmark speech in Cairo in 2009, President Obama said he had come “to seek a new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world, one based on mutual interest and mutual respect.”

Most Arabs now say that was more empty words. By standing up and forcefully declaring its support for democratic reform, the U.S. can position itself as a powerful ally of the moderate forces of change sweeping across the Arab world.

Change does not mean radicalization. The activists who sparked the revolt in Egypt are educated young people with college degrees but no hope of a job. Their message, spread to the masses through satellite TV, resonates with the grinding poor, struggling to survive in a country where the minimum wage is $7 a month.

Talk of the radical Islamist boogeyman by some in the U.S. is fear-mongering at its worst. Egypt is not Iran. There are a host of reasons why. But the bottom line: The Muslim Brotherhood is just one voice among many, it does not espouse a radical ideology, and it joined the uprising only after the masses were already in the streets.

As Egyptian publisher Hisham Kassem, a leading regime critic, put it the other day, “The traditional opposition is dying with the Mubarak regime.”

The U.S. has strong ties to the handful of Egyptian opposition figures likely to inherit the mantle of power with support from the young activists, and it has worked quietly behind the scenes to build bridges to this new generation of change agents, even helping them circumvent the regime’s attempt to block all communications.

But a signal also needs to be sent to the Arab masses — and those across the Muslim world — watching the drama play out on satellite TV. America must be seen as using its influence to help Arab leaders blaze the path — not just acquiescing — to this new era.

Change is inevitable; whether next week or next decade. But if the U.S. reacts instead of leads, its stock will fall even further, we too will be caught up in the backlash against the autocrats, and that nightmare scenario of radicalization could indeed come to pass.

Lawrence Pintak is founding dean of The Edward R. Murrow College of Communication at Washington State University and author of “The New Arab Journalist: Mission and Identity in a Time of Turmoil.”

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