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WASHINGTON -- After 10 days in the Middle East, U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison, D-Minn., said nearly everyone he met was worried about the United States vetoing the Palestinians' statehood request at the United Nations.
He also found himself surprised by the newest leading edge of those pushing the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt: teenage girls.
Ellison, who returned from his trip Monday, said Arab leaders made it clear to him that U.S.-Middle East relations will suffer if the United States makes good on its threat to veto the Palestinian bid for statehood. "The largest takeaway is that if the U.S. does veto Palestinian statehood in the U.N., it will be poorly received across the Arab world," Ellison said. "Every single country we went to, except Iraqi parliamentarians, raised it."
Iraq was the exception, Ellison said, because it is focused on domestic issues. During Ellison's trip with four other House members, the Iraqi parliament signed onto the House Democracy Partnership, a congressional group that works with emerging democracies.
Ellison, the first Muslim elected to Congress, has been an unofficial American ambassador to the Arab world since he was sworn in with his hand on a Qu'ran in 2007. He has traveled frequently to the region as a congressman. When the Arab Spring erupted, Ellison came out as a strong advocate for the uprisings, sometimes pushing further than the Obama administration.
A break with Obama
As the Palestinian statehood bid approached last month, Ellison broke with President Obama to support it. In an op-ed piece for the New York Times that was reprinted in Arabic in a Palestinian newspaper, Ellison called it a way to jolt the Israeli-Palestinian peace process forward. "If we end up exercising that veto, it's going to isolate the United States," Ellison said. "It would diminish our relationship at a time we need it to be stronger."
Ellison, who visited Egypt, Tunisia, Iraq, Jordan and Lebanon, said Arab public opinion matters more since the uprisings throughout the Middle East. The United States, he predicted, will deal less with Arab elites and more with leaders who "actually reflect the popular will of their electorate."
At a speech to about 300 people in Egypt, Ellison said he heard from a range of Egyptians about the role of religion in government, including from some in the Muslim Brotherhood, a group that has sparked concerns about establishing an Islamic rule of law.
"One young lady made the point that arguing for a government with a certain religious character is not the same as arguing for a theocracy," Ellison said. "I was expecting some older guy with a huge beard. This was a 17-year-old girl. So even the Muslim Brotherhood is not a stereotype."
Ellison said he did not travel to the Mideast to tell people how their governments should function. "I don't think when the people went out on the streets, it was to establish a certain kind of religious government," he said. "It was to establish a democratic government."
Jeremy Herb • 202-408-2723 Twitter: @StribHerb