Category Archives: Arab Revolutions

Continuing Through Bitter Days

By Banen Al-Sheemary, University of Michigan alumna
Follow Banen on Twitter @balsheem


Ten years ago today, I remember sitting in front of the television watching the sky turn bright yellow from the massive blasts. Slowly, I turned away from the screen to see my parents’ reaction: absolute silence.


That was the first time I had seen my parents watch the TV news without voicing an opinion. I only saw their sullen silence as they watched their beloved country explode into flames.


My twelve-year-old self had already been indoctrinated with the quintessentially American good guy / bad guy mentality, to which many unfortunately adhere. I struggled to understand the logic behind the invasion of Iraq. Was Iraq a bad country? What had we done wrong? Why is it America’s right to invade and change it? I looked over at my parents again and I could tell their hearts were reeling.


“Believe it. Liberation is coming,” said an arrogant George W. Bush as he spread more war propaganda in his visit to Dearborn, a city in Michigan with the largest Iraqi diaspora community in the United States. All I knew was that the ruthless Saddam Hussein would soon be gone. But what I didn’t know was what would become of Iraq.


Soon I would find the answer: under the guise of cynically named Operation Iraqi “Freedom,” the Iraq I knew would be completely destroyed.


March 20, 2003 marked the day I was able to return to the country from which my family fled as refugees in the early nineties. It was the day “Shock and Awe” began ( CNN’s Wolf Blitzer stated that in his thirty years as a journalist, he had never witnessed anything as severe as the attack on Baghdad. With no concern for civilian life, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld’s genocidal “shock and awe” bombardment on the people of Iraq was America’s quick and easy solution to its imperialist intent for the country.


In an instant, Iraq was forever changed. The Cradle of Civilization was overtaken by incessant chaos, destruction, and death. Now, it is a nation of 4.5 million orphans, 2 million widows, over 4 million refugees, with over half the total population in the country living in slums.


This is the new Iraq.


As the Bush Administration boasted about its murderous accomplishments, all I could see was the rising Iraqi body count. The post-2003 Iraq is not the country my parents longed for.


Barred from returning to Iraq until 2003, I will never know the country in which I was born. I was too young to remember my family fleeing during the first invasion of Iraq. Before we fled, we got rid of all our belongings. My baby pictures were burned to ensure that when Saddam’s thugs checked, there would be no proof of my existence. It was as if my identity was erased, and until March 20th, 2003, I was locked from the this part of my life.



From Operation Desert Storm, to the sanctions of the Clinton Administration and the 2003 occupation, I still couldn’t decipher the US Government’s plans for Iraq. But what I was consistently sure of was the jingoistic attitude that pervaded every American administration and that shaped a foreign policy meant to degrade human life.


Iraq saw treacherous times in the nineties because of the imposition of history’s most comprehensive sanctions to date. Iraq was broken and denied any ability to thrive, even in the most basic of ways. These brutal sanctions led to the deaths of half a million Iraqi children. My older sister recalls Clinton’s secretary of state Madeleine K Albright’s infamous interview in which she was asked if the price of half a million Iraqi children was worth it. She simply said: “We think the price is worth it.”  (


It was an easy decision for the Clinton Administration to make on behalf of all Iraqis, because Iraq was forced to pay. As young as I was, I understood that people of different religions and backgrounds weren’t treated as equals. The dangerous underlying notion that certain people are more worthy of life than others heavily shapes American foreign policy and is upheld from one administration to the next.


In retrospect, the amount of propaganda that fueled and attempted to legitimize the war is staggering. I recall watching the news and being angry at the distorted images of Iraq and its people. I now understand how the media engineered public opinion to justify the invasion. Maintaining the “us versus them” binary was crucial in validating the administration’s agenda and furthering the so-called War on Terror. Soon enough, I heard my classmates echo these falsities and other absurd made-for-CNN headlines. I’ll hold back on the silly names I’ve been called as a result of this.


Hearing my parents’ stories about Iraq helped me put the pieces together. The story starts in their young adult years.


My parents never experienced Iraq under sanctions. During the seventies and eighties, the country was a powerhouse of academia with a thriving economy. In 1979, an Iraqi dinar was equal to $3.20. Nowadays, an Iraqi dinar is practically worthless. Saddam’s effort to lead in the Arab world led to many positive reforms, especially for women. As was required by the state, my mother enjoyed free transportation to work and a six month fully paid maternity leave. Despite his cruel methods of subjugation and obsession with monopolizing and maintaining power, his push to make Iraq the leader of the Arab world resulted in economic and social reform.


My family resides in southern Iraq and we, amongst others, have been brutally persecuted by Saddam’s party for decades. Many of the conversations I have about post-Saddam Iraq revolve around “Well, Iraq is better now because Saddam is gone and America is there.” However, the sanctions, Saddam’s regime, and the American invasion and occupation all left millions of Iraqis with broken homes, empty fridges and bleak prospects for the future. Whether under totalitarian rule or a foreign occupation, millions of Iraqis are still suffering. The meaningless discussion of which regime Iraq is better under is irrelevant and ought to be put to rest.


Ten years passed. In my University of Michigan classes, discussions about Iraq still revolve around that same foolish debate. The outright denial of the claim that oil played a decisive role in the invasion is still somehow considered a legitimate stance.


It was time for me to return and experience the Iraq of today.


January 2012 marked my first return to Iraq. Before my flight, I sat in the airport reading as the time passed. Hundreds of American soldiers returning from Iraq were received by family and friends, applause, and even a news crew. I shook my head because of what the soldiers represented to me. For many, they symbolize freedom, nobility, and honor. To Iraqis, they are the physical embodiment of terror, supremacism and occupation.  


I thought back to the times I was called un-American because of my criticisms of American policies in Iraq and refusal to support the military. I was “crazy” for not supporting the push to remove Saddam from power. Most Americans equated support for the administration’s bombing campaign with patriotism and justice, with a complete disregard for the consequences of war and foreign occupation.


Iraq has become fragmented and pieced. I think of how long it will take to assemble the pieces back together, and to try to bring together those shards of glass that once made a beautiful piece of work.


Nowadays, the occupation dictates every aspect of Iraqi life. The remnants of the brutal invasion manifest themselves on the faces of the people that continue to live and struggle there everyday. Suicide and car bombings, fighting between armed militias, kidnappings, and snipers result in a feeling of despair and no sense of security. Simple everyday tasks like walking to a local market or sending children off to school became impossible.


On my first day back in Iraq, massive explosions rocked Baghdad. I was awakened to the realities of this so-called newly democratic country. Both the Iraqi and American governments promised many things for the people, like building a sewage system. They could not even fulfill this basic necessity.  Inadequate water resources have caused massive death and disease in several cities. The two-hour electricity limit halts any work that needs to be done for the day. Birth defects will continue for decades because of the depleted uranium weaponry used by American soldiers (


This was Iraq.


“The war in Iraq will soon belong to history” stated Barack Obama, in an address marking the supposed end of the occupation of Iraq. America will remember it as history, but Iraqis live through it every day.


I shy away from reading articles on the commemoration of the invasion of Iraq, written by journalists who don’t understand. I become frustrated and always stop after reading just the headline. I laugh at every mention of the ‘lessons to be learned’ so that America can move forward. Iraq is stuck in a phase of sorrow, but we as Americans must learn from the occupation? I watch as oil companies, “defense contractors,” and corrupt government leaders profit off of an occupation that cut Iraq from any lifeline it had. The fortress called the U.S. embassy, staffed by thousands of foreign soldiers, stands as a permanent reminder of the occupation. America is able to move forward and rebuild its economy, but Iraq and its people must endure the harsh realities of the unwelcoming decades to come.


A lesson to learn from Iraqis is one of human dignity and perseverance through trying times. Have we learned? In a new documentary covering Dick Cheney’s legacy, he mentions, “If I had to do it over again, I’d do it in a minute.” And today, mainstream media outlets and the government aggressively continue to build a case against Iran, eerily reminiscent of what we saw ten years ago.


We will never learn until they stop seeing people and countries as strategic plans, as means to an end, as valueless unknowns.


My first visit to Iraq was in 2012, because the occupation had made it too dangerous to travel there in earlier years. One afternoon, my uncle and I drove through Hilla. I forced him to speak about the occupation. After an hour of hearing horrendous stories of crimes committed by American soldiers, he tiredly says, “We are nothing to them. To America, we are simply strategic. Through their eyes, our lives aren’t worth anything.” That was the end of the conversation.


I noticed that Iraqis never speak of the occupation. It was like a faint, unthinkable memory. I sensed that Iraqis have perseverance built within them because of the decades of unrest that they have lived through; they keep on living every day as they can. These are the Iraqis that are reconstructing what is rightfully theirs.


Everyday Iraqis have been partaking in reconstructing Iraq after a destructive occupation in which they were robbed of their agency, future and country. Iraqis create and expand projects as the current government continues to neglect the citizen’s needs. Upper class Iraqi citizens and expatriates living in the West play a role in funding these projects. Many social service facilities are being rebuilt, with a focus on widows, orphans, the elderly, and disabled.  Whether it is building bridges or starting up a water filter company, these projects are opening doorways for job opportunities and steadily decreasing unemployment rates. Despite the lack of security and political and economic turmoil, the hardships that Iraqis face are slowly easing and will be ultimately resolved by the resilient Iraqis that continue to resist and struggle for a better life. Iraqis are forging a path of their own to recreate their Iraq: one away from the government’s corrupted plans and free from the American occupation’s stifling grasp.


Ten long and painful years have passed. The orphan Mustafa from Baghdad says “I feel like a bird in a cage here. I wish there was someone to listen to us.”


Iraqis are listening. I see the same resilience and perseverance in Iraqis that I see in my parents. Years will pass before Iraq will prosper, but I see a future for Iraq because of the millions who are working for it.


When I visit Iraq I smile and blink the tears away. The anger from my heart dissipates when I see shops open for business, human rights organizations assisting widows and orphans, and college students organizing an event for Iraqis. It will come together. Justice and progress will flourish because the people demand it- and they will succeed. This is Iraq.

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“I Walk and my Heart is in Damascus, I Walk”

By Yazan Kherallah, LSA Junior at the University of Michigan.

:A friend of mine told me of this verse recently

“أسير و قلبي في دمشق أسير”

.It means “I walk and my heart is in Damascus, I walk”. I’ve always loved and cherished Damascus. I love its food, its history, its people, and its weather. There’s a comfort of sorts you get when you’re in Damascus. The lazy afternoons on the baranda (house terrace) eating fruits and playing cards, the crowded Souq al-Hamadiyeh (street market), the view from Jabal Qasioun, and the sense of kindred and affection you feel over there all left a strong impression on me. But fate has its ways and since life was hard in Syria, my family decided to move away.

We left fooling ourselves, thinking that going back every summer and break that we could make up for the time we lost. My dad would work to save money, thinking that at some point, he could retire and go back to the life he loved. Jobs and opportunities took us to Chicago, Detroit, Jeddah, and Riyadh.  People always commented on how unsettled our lives were. However, it was just the opposite, because although we walked all across the world, our hearts never really left Damascus.

A year into the Syrian Revolution and that poetic verse rings more true than ever, “I walk and my heart is in Damascus, I walk”. I haven’t been back in a year, but my mind is more engaged in what is happening back home in Syria than with anything at hand in the States. My studies are second priority to calling my family, seeing how they’re doing. I often waste hours without noticing going from one article and YouTube video to another.  I think of all the time and effort I put into such pity work; how if I could take all the time I spend reading foreign policy articles and joining seemingly pointless rallies thousands of miles away and putting it into actual work helping those inside Syria, how much help I could be.

Continue reading

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Dear Iraq

By Banen Al-Sheemary, LSA Senior at the University of Michigan

Dear Iraq,

You think I have forgotten you, but I carry you everywhere. When I watch the world through my eyes, I see you. I can’t help but think of you with my every move and action. I always tie the struggle of the Iraqi people to my life. At least I try. I really do.

Driving on the outskirts of Fallujah, Iraq.

You know what God hates the most? Hypocrites. I feel guilty that I can walk into my house and turn the lights on whenever I want to. There is always an abundance of food in the fridge and clean running water available. I can sleep at night, safe and sound. After morning prayer, I watch the sun rise and say alhamdillah. The rays of light are from the same sun rising in the same sky, but you don’t get the feeling that I get from it. To you, it’s another hard day. Your days are tense and rigid because of car bombings and snipers. You have many days of uncertainty. Yet you still say alhamdillah. I get to hear birds chirping and the world beginning to wake. You are accustomed to the sounds of military warplanes hovering above you or tanks strolling down the roads. I never had to worry about military jets buzzing overhead ready to drop death and destruction. In stark contrast to what you suffer through, I see life here. This is why I feel like a hypocrite. If I don’t struggle with you, then I am a stranger to you. Continue reading

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Back To Baghdad

By Farah Erzouki, Sophomore at the University of Michigan

Between 105,718 and 115,471. With an extra 13,750 on the side; added on from War Logs Wikileaks (via Iraq Body Count). The number of people who have been killed in my Iraq. The only time I have hated numbers more than in Calculus class is now, when it has contributed to the dehumanization of my people. Nothing angers me more than the world seeing my brothers and sisters as numbers. Nothing angers me more than the propaganda machine we call mainstream media, that so cleverly and brilliantly masks the realities behind the invasion and occupation of Iraq. If the implications were not so devastating, I would commend these television networks for how perfectly they portrayed Operation “Iraqi Freedom” to favor the United States, the benevolent supreme. Continue reading

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Multiple Oppressors, One Struggle

By Zeinab Khalil, Sophomore at the University of Michigan

I never imagined that I would have to write this. I would rather not, but this a problematic trend that needs to be addressed.

Headlines of 50, 60, 100 people killed in a Syrian city make their way to us each day. The gruesome images that no one wants to look at are there. The videos that the Assad regime hopes we will eventually become desensitized to or become too sick to watch anymore are there. The horrifying stories of toddlers murdered at gunpoint are documented and known. The reports of journalists killed by the Syrian army’s shelling for trying to do their job are there. Everything we need to know to make a sound judgment about the “situation” in Syria is here. There is no question about the Assad regime’s ongoing savage and merciless attacks on the Syrian people- protesters, rebels, and civilians, whoever they may be. There are names and faces behind these numbers. They come with families, careers, ambitions and feelings. They are human. Yet some seem to have forgotten this fact, and have turned this into a question of conspiracies, dirty politics and double standards. Continue reading

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The 51st Star

By Banen Al-Sheemary, Senior at the University of Michigan

Day 5: Waiting for the darkness to fade away and the light to break in was nerve wrecking. I was anxious to get out of the car and to step onto the sands of Iraq for the first time since my family had fled after the first invasion in 1990. This is the land of the two rivers, the Cradle of Civilization. I just wanted to hold Iraq in my hands. I was cold and exhausted because of the long ride from Damascus. I arrived to Fallujah. The sun began to rise, making the sky different shades of orange, pink, and red, as if a canvas appeared before my eyes. My heart was beating fast. I took a breath and looked up. The sunlight made the horror in front of me a clear picture. A picture that will forever remain with me. With this single glance, I quickly wished that I had never come. The car sped away leaving a cloud of dirt behind it. The air cleared and I was still standing, unable to move. I wanted to get back into the car and drive far away from this unknown place. I wasn’t prepared to see how much the occupation of Iraq had broken the country. Reading articles, statistics, and news reports never prepared me for this.
I walked through a town that had been destroyed and deserted. Seized, conquered, and forgotten. I stood as if I was stuck in place. Stuck like the people of Fallujah, unable to escape the poverty, fear, and despair. I stared in awe and disbelief. I didn’t realize I was holding my breath. I could not breathe properly even if I tried to. I fought back tears. With clenched fists and my body trembling with weakness, I knew I had to keep moving. I had to get away. Is this the Iraq that I had come back to? I trudged along with my head down, unable to face the repeating images that I would witness for miles ahead. I felt myself wanting to fall and crumble to pieces, just like the buildings around me that had been blown to pieces in 2004 by American forces. Blinking as if I had just awoken from a nightmare of sorrow and uncertainty, my mind collided with reality. Surely, this is how the citizens of Fallujah must feel on a daily basis. With death and wreckage everywhere, the souls of the dead filled the air. I again had to stop and regain myself. The thought of thousands killed on these same sands made my tears flow uncontrollably. Now I understood why articles claimed Fallujah was hit the hardest by American forces. How hard I cried for Iraq. Silenced. Continue reading

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Remember February 1982 & Be Aware in 2012

By Noor Haydar, LSA Senior at the University of Michigan

We’re a forgetful people. In my religion, God tells us this. He also tells us that the successful are those who remember. History is as near to us as what happened last week, and we are unable to understand events because their contexts are so far removed from our own today. The world changes so rapidly with every minute, and we know about these changes in real time. What I want to share with you is relevant to today, yesterday and especially tomorrow.

Hama, 1982

It it is relevant to as far back as 1982. The month of February is almost upon us. In February of 1982, Syrian President Hafez Al-Assad ordered his troops into the city of Hama and ordered the squashing of what he believed, was dissent that was threatening to his regime.

The Syrian Human Rights committee estimates that 40,000 people were killed in 3 weeks time. The city was in ruin. Families were shattered, lives shambled.

This past year, I had the privilege of performing Hajj (the required pilgrimage to Mecca). My sister and I usually walked to prayer together, but being the day before our departure, she was buying gifts and had to return them to the hotel room. I went ahead and ended up sitting next to a woman who made a place for me in a crowded space. I sprung up a conversation as I saw a Syrian flag on her bag. She told me she was from Hama. She turned the questioning toward me and so I shared with her my Damascene heritage and that I had lived in America my entire life. Because of the way the uprisings in Syria seems to polarize people, she appeared hesitant to speak to me after hearing both of those facts. We talked about Hajj, the weather etc, and then prayer started. Because of the lack of support Damascus has given the uprising, and because of the apparent lack of support the people of Hama have felt from America, I felt incapable, unable to speak to her. I had so many questions circling in my mind — How’s your family? How has your life changed? Are you well fed? Do you need anything? What can I do to help? I wanted to say I was sorry for making them feel alone- for not being there with them- for not standing up for them.

It will haunt me forever that I didn’t have the courage to speak, to ask her those questions, She opened up a spot for me, extended her prayer mat and shared it with me, and I didn’t ask. I shook her hand, told her have a safe trip home, and left. Have a safe trip home? Really? That’s all I could think of? What about when she got home? The question was, would she be safe after she got home?

Hama, 2011

The people of Hama have suffered a brutal history, one that has come back to life again. While we check our facebook notifications, tweets, and text messages, Hama is reliving its greatest nightmare come to life once again, and the reality has expanded beyond the confines of their city. Dar’a, Homs, Deir Ezzor, Zabadani, and even parts of Damascus…the list is endless. We live in a global village. We live inside the internet with all the information at our finger tips. Ignorance isn’t an excuse for inaction and so I ask, what are we doing? Think about the people of Hama. When you see the names of the cities And the pages and pages of the lists of names of those who have fallen, read them, one by one. Think of them often. Pray for Hama. Pray for justice and peace.

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Qualifying Democracy

By Zeinab Khalil, LSA Sophomore at the University of Michigan.

It’s been one year since a young man from Tunisia lit himself with a fire that continues to emblaze our world today. One year since the 26-year-old, college-educated-turned-fruit-seller Mohamed Bouazizi immolated himself in an act of severe frustration and desperation against a corrupt, unaccountable and brutal police state. Just ten days after his death, following the rage and protests of the people, Ben Ali’s dictatorial regime was over. And now, the puppet presidents and ruthless tyrants of the region continue to drop, one after another, like dead flies.

Egyptians of all ages voting for the first time.

It’s been one year since the start of the revolutions in the Middle East and North Africa, an inspirational phenomenon that has captured the hearts and minds of people all over the world – rightly earning the title of the soul of the global revolution that we are witnessing today.

The vain despots and their loyal forces have demonstrated that they are willing to do everything they can to maintain their authoritarian grips on power, while the protesters have just as passionately demonstrated their will and determination to drive them out of power. Thousands of protestors have been killed and continue to be killed in cold blood by the repressive state security apparatuses. Thousands more have been injured, losing an eye (both eyes in some cases), limbs and in many cases, have become paralyzed for life. Yet it is the determination and perseverance, the hope and vision of something better that keeps these people coming out day after day despite the fact that their bare chests are met with live bullets, their signs with tear gas canisters, and their chants with mass arrests and criminal convictions. All because they dare defy an oppressive authority that tells them that they can’t.

And yet, despite the bold and poignant images and stories we’ve seen and heard by these ordinary citizens doing extraordinary things, some continue to question and undermine the efforts of the movers of these revolutions, who are restless and steadfast in their demand for freedom, dignity and accountability. Some have decided to take on the official voice to continue to tell the people that they can’t.

Tear canisters shot at protesters.

Just this week, Israel’s vice Prime Minister Moshe Yaalon declared that Arabs aren’t ready or worthy of democracy. “We are not sure, to say the least,” he said, “[if] what we’re witnessing now is real democratization.” He continued to dismiss and disparage one of the many achievements and tools of the people in forming nascent democracies by arrogantly asserting that Arabs aren’t ready to vote and that elections for them are actually futile. “We believe that you can’t reach democracy by elections. We believe in a long process.” And of course, as if his comments weren’t uninformed enough, he couldn’t miss the opportunity to dehumanize and invalidate all Palestinians, “We believe the Palestinian society is not mature (enough) to exercise civil society.”

I have something to tell Yaalon and any other Orientalists out there who use their rhetoric to subordinate Palestinians and disdain Arabs by justifying dictatorships and authoritarianism.

My 80-year-old grandmother went out to vote for the first time in her life this week. After waiting for so long, she does not need to be chastised or slapped on the wrists for practicing an inalienable right that she and her fellow Egyptians have had to fight vigorously for. And she certainly does not need to be told that she isn’t ready for democracy by supremacist politicians who dismiss the freedom and dignity of others for the sake of some pseudo stability. She’s already heard enough of that nonsense under the military dictatorship that’s haunted her country for many years, as have many Arabs with their respective, repressive dictators for the past decades.

How hypocritical and shameful of a government that prides itself as being “the only democracy in the Middle East” to not want democracy and freedom for other countries in the Middle East. How embarrassing that Yaalon’s words sound exactly like the words of Mubarak in his last speech, who claimed that Egyptians did not have the “culture of democracy,” or Saleh and Ben Ali who both claimed that Arabs couldn’t possibly understand how democracy works, and used this bigoted ideology to justify their perpetual reigns and fruitless thrones. Of course, Yaalon’s words and Israel’s stance on the pro-democracy revolutions are not new. While government forces in Egypt intentionally ran over protesters with armored police vehicles, President Shimon Peres maintained, “We always have had and still have great respect for President Mubarak” while Ari Shavit contended that Obama had betrayed a “moderate Egyptian president who remained loyal to the United States, promoted stability and encouraged moderation.” (Yeah, running people over cars is actually a moderate thing to do; it’s their fault they weren’t protesting on the crosswalk.)

Pro-Democracy protests erupted across the Middle East and North Africa against authoritarian regimes.

For Israel, it isn’t an issue of democracy or elections coming at a bad time. It isn’t even about elections or time. For Israel, Arabs will never be ready for democracy. Israel does not give a hoot about democracy for people who aren’t Israeli. How can it when it beats down any talk of the self-determination of Palestinians? How can it when it feeds off the propaganda and deception that it is the only democracy in the Middle East?  Without that title, without defining itself against the uncivil and immature Arabs, it loses a big chunk of its identity.

For years, Arabs have been told over and over by their aging tyrants that they aren’t smart enough or wise enough or sophisticated enough for democracy. That they simply aren’t cut out for it. This rhetoric was meant to silence the people, to keep them thinking that the lousy governments they have now are better than not having one at all; as any real attempt towards democracy would ultimately lead to civil war, a failed state, or some other morbid scenario. It helped the tyrants maintain their illegitimate authority and defend their personal interests and financial gains at the cost of their nations’ best and brightest. But the people know better. They’ve proven that they’re smarter and wiser than that and have risen against the indignities imposed on them by their governments, but Israel insists on clinging on to the dying narrative that Arabs are an uncivilized people incapable of self-determination or democracy. By reinforcing these trite, racist labels, Israeli politicians are fooling only themselves, and their words are ultimately irrelevant because the reality of the actions of those on the street from Tahrir to Der’aa to San’aa speak much louder than this empty fiction.

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