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One year after the Arab Spring, American public diplomacy is still facing the now-established conundrum of linking words and actions. The rise of Islamist political parties as the new leaders in the Arab world is the latest challenge for U.S. public diplomacy, but it is also an opportunity.
What should President Barack Obama do next as a U.S. public diplomacy measure vis-à-vis the Arab world? As the regime in Libya crumbles to the cheers of Arab citizens across the region, the Syrian regime is still clinging to power, and even lending a voice to Libya’s fallen leader Muammar Qaddafi, who has been broadcasting defiant messages on a private pan-Arab satellite channel called Al-Oroba, which now shares its broadcasts with Syrian-based pro-regime channel Al-Rai.
The age of the image is upon us and the clock cannot be turned back. And yet the Mubarak regime is in denial. It started with muffling the voice of al-Jazeera. I was fortunate to be in Cairo during the first two days of the current uprising. On January 25 and 26, when the roads around me were starting to be blocked, when sirens and loud speakers could be heard in the areas surrounding Tahrir Square, and when both the police and protesters were mobilizing in larger numbers than ever before, I was struck by the inattention that al-Jazeera was giving the protest.
The latest round of WikiLeaks carried some bad news for Qatari public diplomacy, in the form of US embassy cables stating that the Qatari government is using Al Jazeera as a political bargaining tool.
Lebanon today witnessed one of the largest public diplomacy “events” staged by Iran, in the form of a formal state visit by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. While a state visit as such is not normally framed as a public diplomacy event, Ahmadinejad’s visit to Lebanon was marked by a degree of idiosyncrasy. This is not just because of Ahmadinejad himself (who excelled at the role of modest and earnest leader), but also because of the role played by Hizbullah in this public diplomacy event.
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