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“Arab Spring” – The Morning After

By William Ng | Counterpoint | July 10th, 2013 | LEAVE A COMMENT

 

We all remember the rallying cry that sparked a wave of revolutions throughout the Arab world.  The people were tired of being held down by oppressive government rulers, and they wanted to be a part of the decision making process. In short, they wanted to become a democratic country.

Through a string of civil protests, uprisings, and civil wars, a handful of countries were able to successfully overthrow their rulers.  It was something the world had marveled at, the beginnings of democratic order that will eventually lead to peace in an often chaotic region of the world.

Here, in the U.S., our eyes were glued to what was happening in the summer of 2011.  The feeling that something grand was happening was inescapable.  President Barack Obama had described this phenomenon as “a historic opportunity” for us “to pursue the world as it should be.”  Some even thought we have finally won the war of ideology with radical groups like Al Qaeda.

It has been two full years since the phenomenon known as the “Arab Spring” began.  Where are these countries now? Was democracy the magical pill that these countries needed?

The answer can be gleamed in the recent crisis in Egypt, where the dubious transition of power that began last week still remains unresolved.  Despite having a constitution that was approved through referendum about half a year ago, the people revolted and whispers of a military coups are running wild.

The process of a thorough democratization process for these countries certainly looks dim.  Most countries in the Arab world (that have “succeeded” since the beginning of Arab Spring) are now struggling to maintain order and to push forward without loosing what they have gained so far.  Aside from social instability, the economic outlook also provides another major road bump.  The region’s economic growth has been sluggish.  According to a 2012 Pew Research Center poll, majorities in several countries value a strong economy more than a democratic government.  This makes their situation particularly concerning.  Despite all the changes that have occurred,  the region comprising the Middle East and North Africa still remains the least free in the world, with Freedom House estimating that 72 percent of the countries and 85 percent of the people there still lack basic political rights and civil liberties.

I am not saying that authoritarian governments in this region will endure forever.  The series of protests in recent years have shown that changes to their political infrastructures can happen.  The timetable of when and how is still to be determined, and maybe Egypt will be the best example to look at in the meanwhile.  If Egypt does not fall back into chaos, and actually continue with what they had started in 2011, then the outlook is good.

There are some positives with the recent ousting of former President Morsi by the military.  It’s found in the protests that seemed to have lead to the recent events in Egypt (notice that I said “seemed”, time will tell whether this was a coup or not).  The protest was larger than any protest in 2011, and it spoke out against the situation that the Muslim Brotherhood had placed them.  In Egypt, crime rates are higher than it was before.  And truth to be told, Egypt seem to be nowhere better off than it was in 2011.  But the people have found a voice that seem to be much more powerful than it was in 2011, now it’s just a waiting game to see what will be the outcome of the military intervention that had occurred.

Two years into the Arab Spring, we can now look at the situation in its face and call it for what it is.  The truth is that yes, the uprisings of the last two years have certainly challenged authoritarian rule in the Arab world.  But there still exists structural conditions that seem to be preventing further political liberalization in the region.  On top of that, factors such as war, corruption, and economic stagnation could further undermine the Arab Spring progress.

The role of the U.S. in dealing with what is happening has to be realistic.  We are going to have to deal with the Arabic world with what it currently is, not what it was or will be.  We will have to be in bed with some unsavory nations, but we have to focus on attainable goals.  That does not mean we should give up either, it merely means that we have to help where we can without overstepping.  That is a hard line to discern, something both former-President George W. Bush and President Barack Obama can tell us.

So now that all the glam and make up has come off, and it’s now the morning after.  What the Arab Spring originally looked like still exists… but the truth is that it’s just not as gorgeous and perfect as we thought last night.

 

Snowden Episode II

By Mike Kanoff | Counterpoint | July 4th, 2013 | LEAVE A COMMENT

2013 Mike Kanoff

I’ve been away from the Edward Snowden story for a while, so this week, I thought I’d touch on it again and see what’s changed. After a somewhat-tense departure from Hong Kong, Snowden has been in international limbo for a week, stranded at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo International Airport since the U.S. government revoked his passport, which left him with no valid travel documents, and now he cannot enter any other country or leave the waiting area of the airport. During his time cooped up, he has been busy applying for political asylum from 21 countries. Additionally, Wikileaks, the online leaking platform famous for the cases of Bradley Manning and its founder, Julian Assange, has announced its support of Snowden and has joined in helping him with his asylum requests.

 

While the man himself continues to be immobilized, the NSA leaks have shown no signs of stopping: it has recently been reported that the controversial NSA programs have not been confined to the U.S., with some European Union member countries finding bugs in embassies and network intrusions believed to be linked to the NSA after a document Snowden released named foreign embassies and missions as possible “targets.”

 

I guess I’ll start with the big question: where will Snowden go? Russia has offered to let him stay, but with the catch that he “stop doing work that is aimed at harming our American partners.” Putin’s offer seems more than a little suspicious, but could be a subtle concession to America while remaining in a strong position at the negotiating table, since Russia doesn’t really do extraditions, or he could be hedging his bets. Regardless, for the moment, Snowden will not be turned over the the U.S. Also, a handful of nations have replied to Snowden’s requests for asylum with the message that he must be on their soil to make such a request, but Bolivia has said that it would favorably consider his application, without explicitly demanding he be on their soil, which led many to believe that Bolivia could be the country to grant Snowden asylum. Wednesday (local time), the Bolivian president’s plane from Russia heading home was disallowed clearance over French, Italian, Spanish, and Portuguese airspace because of a rumor that Snowden may have been on board, as speculated by the announcement of possible asylum. That story is still developing at time of writing, but it was released that Snowden was indeed not on the plane when it circled back and landed in Vienna.

 

Personally, I’m hoping that we find out in a couple days that he was in a secret compartment or something and actually made it to Bolivia; with the assertions of U.S. spying in the EU (which I will get to shortly) and the global nature of the Internet and the NSA’s spying thereof, and not to mention Biden’s request for Ecuador to deny Snowden’s application, it seems to me that the U.S. is starting to play dirty. Therefore, if the U.S. is violating the human rights to privacy and to seek asylum, I say it’s fair game if Snowden gets sneaked into a country willing to protect him. Snowden himself alleges that the U.S. is “wheeling and dealing” with his case, and I’m inclined to agree, though there is very little evidence at this time other than Biden’s talk with Correa.

 

So while Snowden himself is trying to find a safe haven, his leaks are doing anything but hiding. It was revealed that the U.S. has been spying on not just ourselves, but our European allies. Allegedly, the NSA has bugged EU buildings in New York, D.C., and most shockingly, Brussels. Additionally, it was revealed that the NSA was allegedly tapping the calls, texts, and emails of most EU allies, with the only exception being Britain. Unfortunately, this story is still developing at time of writing, but should these allegations prove to be true, EU member states Germany and France have already warned of severe repercussions, and it would be logical to expect others to join them.

 

I think we can safely say this isn’t just about terrorism any more. Last time I checked, the EU was very distinctly not a hotbed of terrorism or related activities. What’s more, the EU and its member states are our allies. I’m pretty mad (putting it lightly) that my own government is spying on me. I can only imagine the outrage to be felt by Europeans should it be confirmed that not only is another government spying on them, but an allied government. The president has released a statement along the lines of “everybody who runs intelligence services does this, not just us,” and I’ll concede that he’s right, but we’re talking about our allies, our friends on the international stage. I could see this with China, Saudi Arabia, Russia: our “friends” friends, but this is the EU– we have almost identical goals, we’ve covered each other’s backs for decades– friends don’t spy on friends.

 

I’m left asking “why?” We don’t need to spy on the EU: they’ll tell us what we want to know within reason. Even if they were hiding something, so what? We’re so deeply intertwined that if anything bad happens to one, it affects the other. If it’s anything that’s only good for the EU without being good for the U.S., well… we deal with other countries too; we’re not in an exclusive relationship. Bottom line– I see absolutely no reason to spy on the EU: the European Union is thoroughly uninteresting in terms of threats to the U.S.’s security.

 

A quick parting remark on the home front: people like myself, who have gotten pretty angry with the NSA’s revealed activities, are staging nation-wide and Internet-wide rallies to try to “Restore the Fourth,” on… you guessed it, the 4th of July, and apparently there are a lot of us. I’m not quite sure we’ll have the massive turnout or presence that Egypt just experienced, but here’s hoping for the best. For more information visit http://www.restorethefourth.net/, or if you prefer to save your anti-spying sentiment for a non-holiday, that’s cool too. Either way, enjoy your 4th!

Student Loan Rates Double. Now What?

By Jordan Lewis | Counterpoint | July 1st, 2013 | LEAVE A COMMENT

Student loans mean a lot to a lot of people. I personally will be taking out some loans for law school, and many of the people I know at school are taking out undergraduate loans. Student loan interest rates for most undergraduate students doubled from 3.4% to 6.8%. Members of Congress found this unacceptable but were not able to stop it. I spoke with Senator Angus King’s office last week and a key congressional aide to understand the specific legislation.

Here’s my rundown of the different proposals in Congress:

There are 3 major types of student loans: subsidized Stafford loans (for undergraduates-formerly 3.4%), unsubsidized Stafford loans (for some undergraduates and most graduates-now 6.8%), and GradPlus plans for graduates with other expenses, that is at 7.9%.

Most of the reform plans involve calculations using the 10-year Treasury-Bill rate, which fluctuates with economic growth. The current T-bill rate is 1.81% (for the sake of calculations, let’s say 1.8%). It rises with growth and falls with economic decline. Let’s get into the bills. I’ll offer my political prognosis on some of the bills, but not my policy recommendations. I think that all of the proposals are imperfect.

The House Republican bill would set all rates at 2.5% above the T-Bill rates (4.3%). It offers the lowest current rate for graduate students, but reflects an increase in the rate for undergraduates. However, interest rates are scheduled to rise as the T-bill rate rises along with economic growth, with a cap at 8.5%. The interest rates reset after every year. It appears to reduce the deficit. It passed the House but only had 4 Democratic votes. It is opposed by the Senate Democrats and the President. It would be dead on arrival.

President Obama’s plan is very similar to the Republicans’ (gaining Democrats’ scorn for pushing it to the right in the process). Obama’s plan offers fixed rates for the life of the loan, and caps obligations at 10% of their discretionary income. It does not yet cap interest over the life of the bill, but would start subsidized rates around 2.74%. Graduate rates would start about 4.7%. The President is trying to negotiate a solution for all parties involved.

The Senate Democrats plan is to extend the 3.4% unsubsidized rate for one more year. It does not use the T-Bill rate and would be the most expensive. It would have a difficult time passing the Republican House.

The Bipartisan Loan Certainty Act (S. 1241) is an attempt to bridge these gaps. It sets rates around 3.7% for undergraduates and 5.2% for graduates. It has a cap of 8.25%. It has 5 Republican Senate sponsors and 3 Democrat Senate sponsors. Interest is fixed from the beginning of the loan. It has support from the Senate Republicans, but is opposed by the majority of the Democratic caucus, due to the probability of increased rates as the economy improves. For a deal to be made, I believe that the cap needs to be lowered and other arrangements made to have the necessary Democratic support.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass) has a plan out to tie rates to the Federal Reserve lending rates, but it doesn’t look like it has the votes to pass. Regardless, Congress needs to act to keep rates low. The Government made over $50 billion last year on student loans, siphoning money from hard-working middle-class families and students.