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What's at Stake in Cairo

590 egypt.jpg1. Let's be quite clear: If the military opens fire in the streets of Cairo, as militaries sometimes do when dictators feel the wheels coming off - consider Hafez al-Assad killing 20,000 Syrians in Hama, in 1982, or Saddam's 1988 Halabja massacre, or Mubarak's own three week siege of Cairo's Imbaba district, in 1992 - their deaths will have been financed by U.S. tax dollars.

We may not have bought AK-47's themselves, but the billion and a half dollars we dole out each year -- $68 billion since 1948 -- has made Egypt's army the most formidable among Arab states. Cairo is among the most profligate of U.S. aid recipients; it currently ranks alongside Israel, Pakistan and Afghanistan atop the American foreign appropriation rolls.

For fifty years, the U.S. has cut a deal with the devil we know -- notably the al-Saud family in Riyadh and Hosni Mubarak in Egypt -- at the cost of abandoning our national narrative and values. It was, we decided, the price of stability. It was as unfortunate as it was damming; they are among the most powerful weapons we wield.

Successive American administrations have chosen to support autocrats willing to share intelligence, stamp out the very extremism their stifling rule engenders, and support Israel, either coldly and overtly or quietly, rather than face the unknown - a devil that may share less appetite for rapport with the West.

Exasperation with that hypocrisy -- even if lost on the American public -- has never faded for Arabs. It is the foundation of al Qaeda's hatred for the U.S., and the reason its words resonate with millions of Muslims who would never support Sharia law or a return to a caliphate.

2. In Jordan, for the third Friday in a row, several thousand protesters marched on downtown Amman following Friday prayers; last week in Syria, President Assad met with the Iranian foreign minister to discuss the fate of Lebanon, the chessboard of the region, where, three weeks ago, as President Obama met with Prime Minister Saad Hariri, the American backed coalition was toppled by Hezbollah.

In the last month, in addition to watching allies in Beirut and Tunis fall, Washington saw Ehud Barak and four others abandon Israel's Labor Party to remain in step with the conservative government of Benjamin Netanyahu; the threat of their withdrawal was the last lever Israeli moderates and Washington held to push Bibi toward peace negotiations.

Washington has, in effect, been neutered across the Middle East.

3. I drove across the Sinai a few summers ago, from Cairo to Ras el Masri, and then took a ferry to Jordan. I stopped at nearly every hamlet along the way, on account of a sick travel mate, and spoke with dozens of Egyptians I came across - mechanics, vendors, and soldiers alone in the dessert night, guarding the burned out hulls of buses and trucks that roving Bedouin might otherwise carry away.[1]

Overwhelmingly, both in Egypt and more broadly in the region, one finds people who are genuinely intrigued by the idea of America. Perhaps because they live beneath tyrants they vehemently oppose, Arabs -- contrary to popular belief -- seem quite adept at separating government policies from the beliefs of citizens.

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Brian Till is a Research Fellow with the American Strategy Program of the New America Foundation in Washington, D.C., and the author of Conversations With Power. More

Brian Till is a Research Fellow with the American Strategy Program at the New America Foundation in Washington, D.C. He writes on foreign policy, the strengths and shortcomings of the millennial generation, and the perils of the digital age. Previously a nationally syndicated columnist, he is the author of a book of interviews with former global leaders, including Mikhail Gorbachev, Fernando Henrique Cardosso, Bill Clinton, F.W. de Klerk, and Pervez Musharraf: Conversations With Power.

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