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US message to Arab world matters -- and Obama is sending the wrong one

The message the US projects abroad will resonate long after the final pass of the Super Bowl. The US must lend its full-throated support to the protesters of the Arab world. It matters – both for the future of the region, and the future of America. Sitting on the sidelines may cost us more than our regional standing; it may cost us our own ideals.

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Across the Arab world, mass protests have emerged with a ferocity and urgency the world has almost forgotten since the days of the cold war. In Egypt, protesters thronged the streets, defied curfews, and stormed the Interior Ministry building in Cairo, the most powerful symbol of President Hosni Mubarak’s control.

While the scale of protests and subsequent government response have differed across countries, one thing has been clear – they all looked to the success of this month's revolution in Tunisia as proof that they, too, could be rid of their own dictators.

IN PICTURES: Egyptian protests

We are at a turning point. The world is changing, and America cannot afford to remain on the sidelines for much longer. The Obama administration appears caught in a precarious balancing act of foreign policy, simultaneously attempting dual responses – one of support for a dictator that has served as a stable US ally in an often unstable region, the other of support for a people’s rebellion for freedom and democracy. The mixed messages have left many wondering whose side the United States is actually on. The answer we send to the Arab world at this critical juncture may not only decide our standing in the region, but the future of America’s character and constitution.

Protests erupt in defiance of regimes

Sparked by a month's worth of protests by the Tunisian people, which culminated in the exile of Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, other Arab states immediately took notice, and began nervous preparations. Some tried to suddenly increase subsidies and lower prices of food and other necessities, in hopes of effectively bribing the discontented. Others geared up police forces and began to anticipate their own uprisings.

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But protests have still erupted this month in Yemen, Oman, Jordan, Mauritania, Algeria, Saudi Arabia, and Sudan. In Egypt, as military helicopters and jets screamed overhead, what began as a spontaneous eruption of emotion began to take structure. Formerly-exiled leader and Nobel Prize Winner Mohamed ElBaradei won the support of a coalition of opposition groups and began to speak on behalf of the uprising.

Relics of monarchies

For all their trappings of modern nation-states – embassies, government ministries, tall buildings, and flashy sports teams, we have forgotten that many Arab states remain relics of a time long past ­– absolute monarchies. Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak was not a king in title, but what else can you call a man who has maintained a stranglehold on a nation for three decades, with plans (perhaps until last week) to pass power on to his son?

Syria's President Bashar al-Assad succeeded his father, winning over 90 percent of votes in questionable elections twice, both times running unopposed. Across the Middle East and North Africa, with few exceptions, dictators sit on thrones built upon censorship, political prisons, beatings and detention of journalists and dissidents, and severely restrained freedoms of speech, assembly, press, and religion.

And those who have been victim to these systems are reaching the limits of their patience.

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