WASHINGTON -- In a matter of days, Rep. Keith Ellison has become the leading edge of U.S. support for protesters in Egypt, outpacing the carefully even-handed statements of President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.
While much of official Washington -- including Congress -- treads carefully around the geopolitical implications of the Egyptian uprising, Ellison has been asking anyone within range of his Twitter account to "stand with the blooming ppl's [people's] movement in Egypt." He's also organizing a letter-writing campaign urging the White House to pressure the government of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak "to listen."
His assertive calls to action have put Ellison slightly at odds with a State Department that has, in the past, sought his help in becoming the face of post-9/11 America in the Middle East.
Ellison became an instant sensation in the Arab world four years ago when he took the oath of office with his hand on Thomas Jefferson's Qur'an. As the first Muslim in Congress, the Minneapolis Democrat studied Arabic and went to Mecca on Hajj. He toured the Gaza Strip.
Now a member of the House Foreign Relations Committee, Ellison is pressing the case for change in Egypt.
"I'm just trying to get us to do what we say," he said. "I think we need to be careful, but there are certain things we don't need to be careful about, like siding with the people. This is not an occasion for caution."
As Egyptians battle in the streets of Cairo, it remains uncertain whether Ellison's vocal criticism of the Mubarak regime will help or hinder the White House's behind-the-scenes efforts to navigate the rapidly unfolding crisis. One thing is certain: His public diplomacy remains a step ahead of the official Washington foreign policy establishment.
"He's demonstrating leadership in the correct place," said Maya Berry, executive director of the Arab American Institute. "And that is to focus on the role of the United States."
To Ellison, Obama's most aggressive statement to date -- telling Mubarak "an orderly transition ... must begin now" -- still sounded too ambiguous and overly focused on what the Egyptians should or shouldn't do.
"'Orderly transition' sounds like 'Make sure whatever you do works for us,'" Ellison said. "The people out in the street are like, 'We're not worried about you, so much. We're worried about ourselves.'"
Other Minnesotans in Congress, such as Democrats Sen. Amy Klobuchar and Rep. Betty McCollum, have expressed general support for a peaceful transition.
Ellison's comments have been more visceral. Almost as soon as the crowds hit the streets in Cairo last week, Ellison tweeted "Egyptian ppl people NEED us to speak up for them since their Govt is silencing them." He also asked his 10,000-plus Twitter followers to write to the White House "in defense of Egyptian ppl!"
A White House spokesman declined a Star Tribune request for comment on Ellison's campaign. But Ellison came in for praise at a protest this week outside the Egyptian Embassy in Washington.
"We wish more members of Congress would speak out," said T. Kumar, advocacy director for Amnesty International USA, which led the rally. "People on the ground in Egypt need to know they have friends in the U.S."
'On the right side of history'
Ellison's idealism stands in stark contrast to the pragmatism of conservative lawmakers like Thaddeus McCotter, former chairman of the House Republican Policy Committee. McCotter, a Michigan Republican, has called on the administration to stand by the U.S.-allied Egyptian government.
He warned that, while "imperfect," Mubarak is a bulwark against Islamic extremism, which could jeopardize the peace between Egypt and Israel and threaten vital shipments through the Suez Canal.
Advocates on both sides agree that there's a lot riding on Egypt, regarded in the Arab world as Um El-Dounya, or "mother of the world."
"It's a very difficult spot to be in for [President Obama]," said Egyptian-born Ragui Assaad, a Middle East expert at the University of Minnesota's Humphrey Institute. But Ellison's enthusiastic support for the protesters, Assaad said, is a good complement to Obama's understandable caution.
"Voices from within the United States that are supporting the protesters show that the U.S. is on the right side of history," he said.
Assaad discounts a takeover by Islamist groups like the Muslim Brotherhood, which historically has been seen as the political counterweight to Mubarak. "It's like saying if you have democracy, the Tea Party will take over America," Assaad said.
The new opposition, he said, appears driven less by Islamic fundamentalists than by the secular discontent of educated and Internet-savvy youths.
While some U.S. politicians -- most notably Sen. John McCain -- have begun calling for Mubarak's ouster, Ellison has resisted.
"Why?" Ellison said. "Because trying to pick Arab leaders is the problem. It has to be up to the Egyptians."
Kevin Diaz is a correspondent in the Star Tribune Washington Bureau.