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Archive | July, 2013

Muted Russian Voices Fall On Deaf Kremlin Ears

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Vladimir Putin addressing United Russia party congress. Image via Kremlin’s Press Office

This month’s embroglio between the Kremlin and former Right Cause party leader Mikhail Prokhorov followed by this week’s anticipated announcement that Vladimir Putin will stand as United Russia’s presidential candidate, underscores what little role Russians play in deciding their future.  On the one hand, as Prokhorov learned, any hint of a challenge to the Kremlin’s governing system is effectively quashed, and on the other hand, all that doesn’t really matter because Russia’s future is already rigged.

As Russia lurches towards another scripted presidential election, and the world no longer holds its breath in anticipation of the ruling tandem’s decision as to who will next occupy the Kremlin, one can only sympathize with a Russian citizenry unable to determine its country’s future but who also choose not to. Little has changed since the the last time Vladimir Putin held the world in suspense.

In the months leading to Russia’s March 2008 presidential election, the Kremlin’s feared OMON special forces beat and arrested opposition members and sympathizers. After being flooded with life-size propaganda glorifying the ruling tandem and lambasting an already strangled opposition, Russians filed into voting centers to legitimize a predetermined electoral process void of debate and real choice.

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The Truth about the Peace Corps

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Senator Boxer joined with Senator Isakson (R-GA) and colleagues from the House of Representatives to introduce the 'Kate Puzey Peace Corps Volunteer Protection Act of 2011'.  Image via Senator Barbara Boxer

Senator Boxer joined with Senator Isakson (R-GA) and colleagues from the House of Representatives to introduce the ‘Kate Puzey Peace Corps Volunteer Protection Act of 2011′. Image via Senator Barbara Boxer

As the Peace Corps turns fifty, now is an auspicious time to discuss Peace Corps reform. With annual expenses of less than $500 million, the organization costs little when considered in the broader budgetary debate on Capitol Hill. Over the past ten years, two disparate narratives have encompassed most talk surrounding the organization. The first has to do with Peace Corps volunteer (PCV) safety. The second issue has to do with inadequate funding.

First, the claims that the Peace Corps is not doing enough to keep volunteers safe are, for the most part, baseless. Many of the rules designed to make PCVs safer are either ineffectual or counterproductive.

Is there risk in joining the Peace Corps? Absolutely. But people are also at risk when they drive to work, cross the street, go skiing and pass through Manhattan’s Riverside Park late at night. Bad things happen. Female volunteers are at greater risk than men for obvious reasons, but that does not mean that Peace Corps Safety and Security policies are always are putting PCVs in imminent danger. Many times these rules are just annoying hoops that PCVs jump through until they start to ignore them.

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Moscow’s Dangerous Iran Policy

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Mahmoud Ahmadinejad speaking at Columbia University. Photo: Daniella Zalcman

Russia relishes in its role as both the gate keeper to Iran and Tehran’s voice to the West. This bipolar Iran policy, however, is destined to backfire. The Kremlin perceives that its role as the principle interlocutor between Tehran and the P5+1 reaffirms in western and Chinese eyes Russia’s position as a global leader, while affording Moscow a key issue with which to leverage the West on matters of interest to the Kremlin.

While Russia has at times supported UN sanctions on Iran because of Tehran’s intransigence with its nuclear program, Moscow has done so timidly so as to not undermine ties with Iran or appear as if Russia is capitulating to western, and namely American, prerogatives. But by doing so, Moscow also buys Iran time to advance its nuclear program, makes the P5+1 look divided in the eyes of Tehran and the international community, and creates a moral hazard by appearing soft on states seeking to join the nuclear club. Nevertheless, much like the West, Moscow recognizes that short of a military strike, there is little Russia can do to seriously curb Iran’s nuclear program.

But by tempering western efforts to control Iran’s nuclear program, Moscow has garnered Iran’s help in, among other areas, limiting American and Chinese influence in Central Asia, and advancing Russian interests among hydrocarbon exporting countries. Moscow and Tehran have also expanded trade and investment ties, and are cooperating to develop their energy sectors, such as through a joint oil exchange and Russian involvement in Iranian hydrocarbon projects.

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Bashing the European Union in the United States

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Members of Parliament at the European Parliament in Strasbourg, France, 16 January 2013.  Patrick Seeger/EPA

Members of Parliament at the European Parliament in Strasbourg, France, 16 January 2013. Patrick Seeger/EPA

Since the recession, bashing the European Union has become a sport for U.S. commentators. Just skim the most recent headlines, and one is led to believe that the old continent is on the brink of economic, political and social collapse. The truth is that very few commentators really seem to grasp the revolutionary character of the European Union—revolutionary because it successfully spreads the premises of the American Revolution, which Abraham Lincoln summarized in the Gettysburg address as “government of the people, for the people, and by the people.”

The European Union’s promotion of a free market economy and democracy is one of the most underreported success stories in the U.S. media. Enlargement of the European Union is perhaps the only time in history that sovereign nations have voluntarily submitted to conditions that usually only the vanquished, after a long, drawn out conflict, would accept—adaptation of alien legislation ranging from new penal codes to energy intensive light bulbs, the relinquishing of key economic competencies, such as trade and monetary policy, and a common currency and tariff reductions.

The well-known Copenhagen criteria, the rules that define whether a country is eligible to join the European Union set forth by the European Council in June 1993, are criteria the U.S. founding fathers would have delighted in: stability of institutions guaranteeing democracy, human rights and respect for and protection of minorities; rule of law; the capacity to cope with competitive pressure and market forces, i.e. the establishment of a free market economy; and a very strict adherence to the aims of political, economic and monetary union.

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Legacies of Palestine and Afghanistan

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Burhanuddin Rabbani

Burhanuddin Rabbani

All eyes were focused on the game of brinkmanship over the Palestinians’ bid for full United Nations membership when Afghanistan’s ethnic Tajik leader and ex-president Burhanuddin Rabbani was assassinated in Kabul on Monday (September 20). Rabbani’s murder has to do with past rivalries, as well as the future, of Afghanistan and is significant, as is the battle for Palestinian statehood. The stakes are high in each case. What will transpire seems uncertain at this stage.

I am not convinced that the Palestinian bid is necessarily doomed in the face of the United States veto, whenever the Security Council decides to vote, and Israel’s brute military force against the Palestinian population in the occupied territories. The Palestinian move does not alter the reality on the ground for now, but has the potential to transform international diplomacy, isolating the Obama and Netanyahu administrations. A vote in the United Nations General Assembly could then upgrade Palestine to be a “UN non-member state,” putting it alongside the Vatican, Kosovo and Taiwan. It would be short of full statehood, but a significant push.

Freedom from occupation comes after a long struggle and great sacrifices. It has been the case in the past and it is certainly the case with the Palestinians. I am old enough to remember apartheid in South Africa and how that system created a messy network of affluent white communities living off the labor of blacks of Bantustans, existing at the mercy of the Afrikaner regime. The power of anti-apartheid campaigners inside South Africa was no match compared to the power of the rulers.

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There Are No Silver Bullets to Peace

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West Bank town of Hebron. Photo: Ethan Wilkes

West Bank town of Hebron. Photo: Ethan Wilkes

As young American Jews, we had come to Israel as ambassadors of the Birthright mission: “to diminish the growing division between Israel and Jewish communities around the world.” We had come in search of understanding, and an opportunity to view Israel in its entirety. They told us not to go, that the West Bank was not safe for us. But to visit Israel and avoid the Palestinian Territories on hearsay would have made us guilty of the very indifference that the Birthright program seeks to overcome.

We boarded a bus for Hebron, a city that has epitomized the kind of extremist violence that tears at the fabric of peace between Israel and Palestine. Home to the Cave of the Patriarchs, a site of equal religious significance to Islam and Judaism, Hebron’s history appears one of constant struggle. The Israelis point to a 1929 “massacre” that saw them ejected from their own homes. The Palestinians point to a 1967 “invasion” that saw them barricaded behind their own city walls. It is a city that gives real meaning to the buzzwords that define this conflict. But in Hebron, it is the Jews who seek the “right of return” and the Palestinians the “right to exist.”

We arrived at a barricaded checkpoint sandwiched within one of the many winding roads of the old city. The Israeli guard who stood opposite us behind bulletproof glass immediately demanded our passports and asked if we were Jewish. “American,” was all we told him. We had heard that soldiers sometimes restrict access to Palestinian areas from Jews regardless of origin. “For safety,” they would say. Given Hebron’s volatile history, the concern is not entirely misplaced, and it is one that we subscribed to as well. In our own naïve assumptions, we believed that one step beyond the security barrier lay open revolt. We expected violence and unrest, uproar and insecurity.

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The Futile Undertaking of Palestinian Statehood

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President Barack Obama chairs a United Nations Security Council meeting at U.N. Headquarters in New York, N.Y., Sept. 24, 2009. Pete Souza/White House

President Barack Obama chairs a United Nations Security Council meeting at U.N. Headquarters in New York, N.Y., Sept. 24, 2009. Pete Souza/White House

Today, September 23, Palestinian Authority (PA) leader Mahmoud Abbas submits to the UN the application for Palestinian statehood for the Palestinian territories occupied by Israel since 1967. What are the implications of this effort? Does it serve the Palestinian cause? And why do Israel and the U.S. oppose this action? What’s the alternative?

Paradoxically, this month marks the eighteenth anniversary of when Abbas stood alongside Bill Clinton, Yasser Arafat and Yitzhak Rabin on the White House lawn in a ceremony celebrating the signing of the Oslo Accords. As one of its architects, Abbas sold the Oslo agreement to the Palestinian people as the vehicle towards the establishment of an independent Palestinian state and the restoration of the rights of the Palestinian people.

But throughout the past two decades lofty promises were offered to the Palestinians, while endless negotiations across continents took place between Israel and the PA, which Abbas has headed since the death of Arafat in 2004: Madrid (1991), Oslo (1993), Wye River (1997), Camp David (2000), Taba (2001), Quartet’s road map (2002), Annapolis (2007), bilateral negotiations (2008), Obama’s promises for settlements freeze in Cairo (2009) and declaration of statehood within one year at the UN (2010).

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Another ‘Symbolic Victory’: Abbas’ New Political Gambit

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Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas addresses the UN Security Council. Jenny Rockett/UN

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas addresses the UN Security Council. Jenny Rockett/UN

When Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas decided to go to the United Nations to request the admission of Palestine as a full member, he appeared to have had an epiphany. Had he finally realized that for the past two decades he and his party, Fatah, have gone down a road to nowhere? That Israel was only interested in him as a conduit to achieve its colonial endeavor in the remaining 22 percent of historical Palestine? That his national project – predicated on the ever elusive ‘peace process’ – achieved neither peace nor justice?

Abbas claims to be serious this time. Despite all US attempts at intimidation (for example, by threatening to withhold funds), and despite the intensifying of Israeli tactics (including the further arming of illegal Jewish settlers to combat possible Palestinian mobilization in the West Bank), Abbas simply could not be persuaded against seeking a UN membership this September. “We are going to the Security Council. We need to have full membership in the United Nations…we need a state, and we need a seat at the UN,” Abbas told Palestinians in a televised speech on September 16.

For months, Palestinian intellectuals, historians, legal experts and academicians have warned against Abbas’s haphazard, understudied move. Some have argued that if Abbas’ UN adventure is a tactical maneuver, its legal repercussions are too grave a price to pay for little or no returns. If ‘Palestine’ replaces the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) - currently recognized by the UN as the sole representative of the Palestinian people - then Palestinians risk losing the only unifying body they all have in common (its replacement representing only two million Palestinians in the occupied West Bank).

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Julian Assange and his Irony Problems

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Bordering on what some suggest is the very definition of irony, WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange has come out fighting against the release of his autobiography without his consent. Despite being paid $1 million dollars for his autobiography, he failed to deliver on his portion of the agreement and the publisher decided to release the 244-page memoir to bookstores on Thursday.

The publisher, Canongate, insists that Assange has not repaid the publisher for his advance. Assange was originally paid by Canongate to begin working on the memoir with a ghostwriter but decided to cancel his contract with Canongate, citing his ongoing legal problems. Nevertheless, Canongate decided to publish the first draft of Assange’s “unauthorized autobiography”.

“I did not pull the plug on the deal, nor was I unwilling to compromise. Rather, I proposed on 7 June 2011 to cancel the contract as it stood in order to write up a fresh contract with a new deadline. I informed the publishers of this on 7 June 2011, having explained that with the upcoming extradition appeal in the High Court and an ongoing espionage Grand Jury against me in Virginia, I was not in a position to dedicate my full attention to a book that would narrate my personal story and my life’s work,” Assange said in a statement posted on the WikiLeaks website.

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Obama to Meet with Netanyahu and Abbas

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President Barack Obama talks with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel as they walk from the Oval Office to the South Lawn drive of the White House.  Pete Souza/White House

President Barack Obama talks with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel as they walk from the Oval Office to the South Lawn drive of the White House. Pete Souza/White House

President Obama is scheduled to meet with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas on Wednesday in New York in a continuing bid to dissuade him from pressing ahead with U.N. recognition for a Palestinian state later in the week at the United Nations. Obama is already scheduled to meet with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to discuss the historic vote. However, the vote could be delayed for weeks, according to reporting by Haaretz.

According to Haaretz, citing sources at the United Nations, Western nations on the Security Council have agreed to delay the vote to give the Israelis and Palestinians time to negotiate. Additionally, this would give the Obama administration the needed breathing room to avoid a veto of Palestinian statehood, which many officials in the administration have promised would happen. “While media sources are preoccupied with whether the United States will succeed in its attempts to secure a majority of opposing votes to decline the Palestinians’ bid for statehood, sources say a ‘silent agreement’ exists between Western powers to act to postpone the vote at the Security Council,” Haaretz reports.

According to various media sources, the United States is encouraging Abbas to submit in writing his goal of having the Security Council vote on Palestinian statehood without ever actually holding the vote. The PA president’s letter would then be accompanied by a statement from the U.N., Russia, the European Union and the United States that would outline under what conditions negotiations would resume. Regarding this proposal, a Palestinian official is quoted as suggesting, “We don’t need a vote right away,” the unnamed official said. “We see this as the beginning of a process.”

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Israel’s Colonial Law

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Israeli settlement near Bethlehem. Jay Voorhees/Flickr

There is a quite revolution taking place in Israel. It is not on the streets of Tel Aviv nor at the walls of its illegal separation barrier. It is far from the kibbutz, synagogues, student unions or town halls, far removed from the raised fists and ritual chanting. And its aims are neither progressive, enlightened nor universal. It is a revolution which sets to cause serious problems for Israel’s already withering pseudo-democracy.

Defence (Emergency) Regulations, a relic of the British Mandate’s Colonial Jurisprudence, were historically used to violently suppress indigenous resistance to Imperial powers. Israel’s legal system has since observed a worrying obedience to its colonial predecessor keeping and arbitrarily using these regulations to vilify and isolate the Palestinian Arabs on both sides of the Green line. Now, a new Government sponsored ‘Counter-Terrorism’ Bill, having passed its first reading in the Knesset plenum on the final day of the Houses’ summer session, sets to etch these draconian laws into Israel’s statutory books plunging the country into a perpetual ‘State of Emergency.’  In 1937, following the Arab Revolt in Palestine, the Privy Council authorized the British High Commissioner the competence to enact regulations to maintain public order. These were in effect to quash any resentment against the Imperial Master and indigenous resistance to the colonial order.

Israel followings its creation, through the Government and Law Arrangements Ordinance, maintained many of its provisions and similarly, used it to militarily rule over the Arabs in Israel. The regulation invested any government official or military commander far reaching powers to arrest people indefinitely, try individuals without due process, use ‘secret evidence’ in proceedings, sloppily label legitimate dissenting groups as ‘terrorist’, violate rights of speech and offend basic principles of criminal law. One of the most notorious is perhaps Regulation 119 which facilitates the destruction of Palestinian homes in the West bank and Gaza. Ironically despised by the Jewish settlers, in typically ‘Stockholm syndrome fashion’, no sooner did they end up embedded in the statute books of the ‘Jewish State.’

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Fear of a Lost Generation

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Apple store in New York City. Photo: Rob Boudon

Tonight I helped the founder of MySpace buy an iMac. The catch is, it was over Google+, and I was one of several folks to chime in with advice in seconds. I sent over some links on how to use Migration Assistant, and he said “thanks” and picked up a computer. It’s a small (slightly ridiculous) story, but it emphasizes just how connected we are in today’s world. In seconds we can help someone buy a computer, or pick a college, or choose a job.

We are only a couple finger swipes away from billions of other people around the world. As members of the global Millennial Generation, we have countless more opportunities and connections than any other generation. So how is that working out for us? Unemployment for young Americans is at historic highs. For folks in the 16 - 24 age bracket, it is over double the national average of 9.1 percent. Poverty rates for the 18 - 24 age bracket is at a devastating 21.9 percent. It is hard to comprehend that number - almost 22 percent of college age students live in real poverty.

And that’s the United States - one of the richest countries in the world. The picture is more dismal internationally. The Arab Spring protests were driven in part by massive youth unemployment rates that made countries extremely vulnerable to changes in food prices. Only 49.8 percent of African youth are employed.  In Europe there is some good news in Germany, where youth unemployment fell to 6.5 percent. However most of Europe - from Ireland to Greece - deals with youth unemployment in the high twenties and low thirties. Even in seemingly recession-proof China an increase in young worker strikes in manufacturing facilities is raising eyebrows.

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Rethinking Afghanistan After a Decade

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U.S. Marine Corps Lance Cpls. Joshua Prall (left) and Derrick Wastart (right) provide security while fellow U.S. Marines help Afghan soldiers clear a compound during Operation Tageer Shamal in Afghanistan's Helmand province on Jan. 4, 2012

U.S. Marine Corps Lance Cpls. Joshua Prall (left) and Derrick Wastart (right) provide security while fellow U.S. Marines help Afghan soldiers clear a compound during Operation Tageer Shamal in Afghanistan’s Helmand province on Jan. 4, 2012

Reading what I wrote about Afghanistan a decade ago reminded me of how much my understanding of the role of war and hard power in upholding security for the nation and the world has changed. Actually, it seems clear to me that my views on Afghanistan back in 2001 were an exception to my general skepticism about Western interventions in the non-Western world, a view formed during ten years of opposition to the American role in the Vietnam War.

At the time, with the Al Qaeda attacks so recently seared into my political consciousness, and some anxiety that more attacks of a similar kind were likely to follow, it seemed logical and helpful to adopt a war strategy as part of an overall effort to disrupt the mega-terrorist capabilities to inflict further harm either in this country or somewhere else on the planet.

Although I realized that the international law argument for attacking Afghanistan, with the clear objective of regime change, was weak absent the exhaustion of diplomatic remedies, but such considerations were overcome in my mind by the political argument for doing immediately whatever was necessary to uphold security in this country and generally, and the moral argument that any successor government to what was being imposed on the Afghan people by the Taliban would almost inevitably be a step in the right direction. At first, these early assessments of mine seemed vindicated, but now with the benefit of ten further years of military engagement and retrospective insight, a reappraisal is long overdue.

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Tensions in the South China Sea but No Solutions

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Members of Chinese navy honor guard in Beijing, China.  Andy Wong/AP Photo

Members of Chinese navy honor guard stand at attention during a welcoming ceremony for U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates at the Bayi Building in Beijing, China. Andy Wong/AP Photo

Increased tensions in the South China Sea, especially between China and Vietnam, focus attention on vitally strategic area of interest, not only for the countries involved, but for the entire Asian continent. Global dynamics and balance of power are greatly affected by them.

Between late May and early June of this year, a new round of negotiations over a topic that, according to many analysts, will become one of the most important geopolitical issues in the coming years, began. The geopolitical development of what is happening in the South China Sea will have immediate and long term consequences for global security. This is due in large part to the economic significance of the area, its strategic location, the sheer number of states directly and indirectly involved with it (China, South Korea, Japan, etc), and their economic significance on the global level. Rising tensions and regional developments are being carefully followed by many stakeholders.

The South China Sea is the part of the Pacific Ocean stretching from the Straits of Malacca in the south-west to the Straits of Taiwan in the north-east. One of the distinctive features of the region is its high level of biodiversity and abundant marine resources, as it teems with fish, a product of strategic importance for all of the neighboring countries. Another feature is tied to the large number of islands and islets, sandbanks, and atolls in the region. The diversity and richness of natural resources and the divergent interests of the key actors in the region are what originally attracted so much international attention.

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Three Big Challenges Threatening the Arab Uprisings

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President Barack Obama talks with members of his Middle East Policy team, including George Mitchell, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Dennis Ross and Dan Shapiro, in the Oval Office, Sept. 1, 2010. Pete Souza/White House

President Barack Obama talks with members of his Middle East Policy team, including George Mitchell, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Dennis Ross and Dan Shapiro, in the Oval Office, Sept. 1, 2010. Pete Souza/White House

With the fall of Muammar Qaddafi’s headquarters in Bab Al-Aziziyyah in Tripoli on August 23, Libya became the third country to oust its long-serving dictator after the fall of Tunisia’s Zein-al-bedin Ben Ali and Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak earlier this year.

The failed assassination attempt on Yemen’s Ali Abdullah Saleh on June 3, has kept him outside the country, recovering from his injuries in Saudi Arabia. Meanwhile, the large daily peaceful protests of tens of thousands of Yemenis in many of the country’s cities and provinces have expanded, demanding the ouster of Saleh’s relatives and cronies from power.  In Syria, Bashar Al-Assad has been struggling for more than six months to contain his people’s daily discontent and maintain his grip on power to save his increasingly isolated and weakened regime.

However, the popular uprisings sweeping much of the Arab world this year are facing three crucial predicaments. How the different sides in each political theatre deal with these critical issues will determine the future of these societies, as they undergo their genuine popular revolutions, and a change in leadership, for the first time in decades.

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