Inside the Middle East
January 19, 2011
Posted: 1225 GMT

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Filed under: Protests •Tunisia

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January 16, 2011
Posted: 640 GMT

Tunis, Tunisia (CNN) - Even while under curfew following the ouster of their long-serving authoritarian leader, Tunisians on Saturday experienced newfound freedoms online as their acting president promised a "new phase" for his embattled land.

Filters on websites like Facebook and YouTube, put in place under former President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, were dropped and Internet speed picked up considerably - a development that followed the new government's vow to ease restrictions on freedoms.

In addition, three Tunisian journalists - including two bloggers critical of Ben Ali - have been freed from jail, the Committee to Protect Journalists said Saturday.

These developments come as Fouad Mebazaa was sworn in as the country's acting leader on Saturday, after Ben Ali and his family took refuge in Saudi Arabia following days of angry street protests against the government.

Speaking on national TV, Mebazaa, who had been the country's parliamentary speaker, promised to ensure the nation's "stability," respect its constitution and "pursue the best interest of the nation."

"Citizens, sons and daughters of our country of Tunis, in this important and urgent moment in the history of our beloved country, I appeal to all of you of various political parties, and nationalist organizations, and all civil society organizations to fight for the national interest and to respect the army's command and the national security in security matters, and to preserve private and public property and to bring the return of peace and security in the hearts of the citizens," he said. Full story...

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Filed under: Protests •Tunisia

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November 29, 2010
Posted: 1929 GMT
Outisde a voting station in the Sayida Zainab area of Cairo, An NDP party candidate's poster dominates (Mary Rogers/CNN)
Outisde a voting station in the Sayida Zainab area of Cairo, An NDP party candidate's poster dominates (Mary Rogers/CNN)

We had to be patient to get pictures of people casting their ballots at the Yahya Mashhad School for Languages in the gritty northern Cairo district of Shubra Al-Khaima.

One voter would enter the room every ten minutes or so, slip behind a black curtain to fill out their ballot, drop it in a battered wooden box, sign the register, and then dip their finger in pink ink. After another long wait, the next voter entered.

Outside, earnest supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt's largest opposition bloc, complained that their appointed observers had been denied the right to monitor the voting.

"There is no way we can ensure these elections were fair," Brotherhood supporter Mustafa told me.

Newspapers in Cairo Monday morning were full of reports of vote rigging and violence around the country.

According to the official Higher Elections Committee, turnout in Sunday¹s parliamentary elections was 25 percent. Independent observers say it was probably not even half that.

Initial results indicate the ruling National Democratic Party has cleaned up and that the Brotherhood has taken a serious beating. A round of run-off elections is scheduled for Dec. 5.

It's a dramatic turnaround from late 2005, when the Brotherhood surprised even many Egyptians by winning 88 seats, grabbing around 20 percent in the People¹s Assembly.

But that was then. In 2005 the administration of George W. Bush was at the height of its push for democratic reform in the Arab world, and President Mubarak¹s authoritarian government was squarely in the American cross hairs.

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Filed under: Egypt

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November 8, 2010
Posted: 1433 GMT
Yemeni security are seen outside a branch of the US package delivery firm UPS in Sanaa (Getty Images)
Yemeni security are seen outside a branch of the US package delivery firm UPS in Sanaa (Getty Images)

Editor's Note:  Ben Wedeman has lived and worked in the Middle East for more than 30 years, and has reported from Yemen.

Yemen is "a hotbed of al Qaeda activity," a "failed state," "the next Afghanistan." Or so we are being told.

Trying to make sense of the uproar over Yemen stirred up in late October by the handful of alleged bombs shipped from Yemen and bound for the United States, I sought the wisdom of people who have been to Yemen, lived there, and speak the language.

One of them is Sheila Carapico, a Yemen expert teaching at the American University in Cairo.

"Some of the intelligence from inside the government and think tanks and other sources in Washington on Yemen is so focused on this AQAP (al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula) entity that they just neglect to get a basic grasp on Yemeni geography and history," she told me.

AQAP is believed to be behind the package bombs, as well as the accused bomber Umar Farouk AbdulMutallab, who U.S. authorities say tried to blow up a passenger jetliner with an explosive partially sewn into his underwear. He's facing six charges, including attempted use of a weapon of mass destruction, and has pleaded not guilty to charges of trying to blow up the plane.

AQAP's so-called spiritual leader, US-born Anwar Al-Awlaqi, is said to have been the inspiration for Major Nidal Hassan, accused of going on a shooting rampage in Fort Hood, Texas, a year ago, in which 13 people were killed.

AQAP may be on the lips of the growing army of terrorism "experts" around the world, but it remains, she said, something of an unknown quantity in the Arab world. "Americans recognize the notion of AQAP and think it's a huge threat. For most Arabs, the acronym makes no sense and the organization, if it exists at all, is a sort of shadowy, fluctuating, almost viscous entity."

Indeed, I suspect if you were to go out on the streets of Cairo and ask one thousand people if they knew who Anwar al-Awlaqi is, you'd probably be met by blank stares. It may come as a surprise to some, but the poster demons in the war on terror are largely unknown in this part of the world.

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Filed under: Obama •U.S. •Yemen

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October 26, 2010
Posted: 1951 GMT
They looked pretty rough, more than 3,000 years after their prime, and not being an expert I just gawked like the tourists who were filing through.
They looked pretty rough, more than 3,000 years after their prime, and not being an expert I just gawked like the tourists who were filing through.

Just imagine: a world without cancer. It's a tantalizing thought, recently floated by researchers at Manchester University in the UK.

That world may well have existed, but in the distant past, according to their survey of hundreds of mummies from Egypt and South America. The researchers found that only one mummy had clearly identifiable signs of cancer.

The study suggested that industrialization, pollution and the ills of modern life are to blame for the epidemic of cancer now seen sweeping around the globe.

Monday morning I went to the mummy room in Cairo's cavernous Egyptian Museum to have a look for myself. They looked pretty rough, more than 3,000 years after their prime, and not being an expert I just gawked like the tourists who were filing through.

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Filed under: Egypt •Health

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September 17, 2010
Posted: 1618 GMT
The original photo showed U.S. President Barack Obama leading Middle East leaders during peace talks.
The original photo showed U.S. President Barack Obama leading Middle East leaders during peace talks.

Twitter alerted me to the doctored picture of President Hosni Mubarak leading the pack of Middle East peacemakers that appeared on page 6 of Al-Ahram’s 14 September edition.

Wael Khalil, a part-time blogger and full-time software engineer, noticed that the photo in Al-Ahram was an altered version of a picture first published after the meeting in the White House of President Barak Obama, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Jordanian King Abdallah II and, of course, the Egyptian President.

In the original photo President Mubarak was in the back on the left, looking, many people in Egypt duly noted, his 82 years. The group was led by President Obama.

So when Wael saw in Al-Ahram that Mubarak was in the lead, Obama pushed back to the second row, and Netanyahu relegated to the rear, he knew something was wrong. Through Google he found the original photo and posted them on his blog, and posted that link on his Twitter account.

And then went out for lunch with his friends.

When Wael saw in Al-Ahram that Mubarak was in the lead, he knew something was wrong.
When Wael saw in Al-Ahram that Mubarak was in the lead, he knew something was wrong.

“We felt it’s going to be a ‘ha-ha,’” he told me, “a local joke, a ‘look-at-what-they’re-doing’ sort of thing.”

He’s taken aback by the interest in the doctored photo. “This is the Mubarak we know, this is the regime we know,” he says.

He posted his blog when I was busy covering the second round of direct Palestinian-Israeli peace talks in Sharm Al-Shaikh. I looked at the two pictures, laughed at the obvious, fairly crude hanky-panky, and moved on. So Al-Ahram plays fast and dirty with Photoshop, I thought. No surprise there. They’re playing the same game they do with words on a daily basis: It’s called “praise the leader.”

Al-Ahram is one of Egypt’s oldest newspapers, founded in 1875. It’s a dull but reliable indicator of how the government views the world. It’s Cairo’s dusty gray lady, all the news the Egyptian government deems is fit for the people to read.

Al-Ahram’s senior editors are appointed directly by the Egyptian president, and, not surprisingly, they follow the official line without much deviation.

Friday Osama Saraya, the editor of Al-Ahram, wrote in the paper that the picture at the centre of the controversy was “expressive,” underscoring Egypt historic role in the peace process.

Hisham Qasim, himself an independent newspaper publisher and harsh critic of the 29-year-old Mubarak regime, is not impressed by the defence.

“The editors of Al-Ahram have gone over the top. They are making Mubarak look silly worldwide," he said. "It's amazing how much coverage Mubarak is getting. It has become the joke of journalism.”

In the meantime the Ahram photoflub is racing around the new media in Egypt across the Middle East, a lesson to the old media, perhaps, that the rules of the game of “praise the leader” have changed for good.

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Filed under: Egypt

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September 15, 2010
Posted: 950 GMT


Ayman Khalil, the porter, and CNN Jerusalem cameraman David Hawley at the Erez Crossing


*CNN's Sr. Int'l. Correspondent Ben Wedeman filed this report from a recent reporting trip to the Gaza Strip*

"I am always walking in my dreams," Ayman Khalil tells me as we walk across no-man's land between Gaza and Israel in oppressive mid-day summer heat. "And when I wake up," he adds, "my feet hurt."

Ayman, and his other colleague, 'Antar, are the only two people authorized by both Hamas (which controls Gaza) and Israel to walk back and forth in no-man's land. They work as porters at the Erez Crossing, in the long, fenced in passageway set aside for the few people allowed to go back and forth between Israel and Gaza.

Ayman walks about 600 metres of ground in the kilometer-long passageway on the Gaza side. He then hands off to 'Antar, who, with his rickety trolley, takes luggage the rest of the way.

He estimates on average he goes back and forth about between 30 and 40 times a day, which means he walks 36 and 48 kilometers a day, or, by my rough calculation, taking into account slow days, holidays, etc. between 10,800 and 14,400 kilometers a year. He may be overstating the case, but I can attest that he's on his feet much of the day.

As one of the few precarious links between Gaza and Israel, both 'Antar and Ayman are acutely sensitive to the ups and downs of the unhappy relationship between the two. If tensions are high, if there is an incident that closes the border crossing, their livelihoods are put on hold. They both have large, extended families to support in their nearby town of Beit Hanoun, which often bears the brunt of the violence.

I've known Ayman and 'Antar for years, and watched as they walked, and walked, and walked a fine line between Israel and Gaza. Both have been wounded by shrapnel and gunfire, both have seen more combat than most battle-hardened veterans, both have a hard-headed disdain for the vagaries of war and politics.

"It's exhausting work," says Ayman, "but if I don't walk, we starve to death."

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Filed under: Gaza •General •Israel

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September 13, 2010
Posted: 2109 GMT

The 'David Hawley media pass' also changes Ben Wedeman's employer.
The 'David Hawley media pass' also changes Ben Wedeman's employer.
Breaking news! I no longer work for CNN, I'm no longer a reporter, in fact, I'm no longer Ben Wedeman. Well, at least that's according to the Egyptian Director of the Central Administration of Security at the Sharm el-Sheikh peace talks between the Palestinians and Israel.

He (or she, I suppose, since I don't know the name) issued me credentials as David Hawley, changed me into a cameraman, and assigned me a new employer: Bahraini TV.

David Hawley is my good friend and colleague, CNN's Jerusalem good-natured Australian cameraman. David's or my affiliation with Bahraini television remains a mystery.

Anyone who has ever covered a summit or conference in Sharm Al-Shaikh knows they are disorganized affairs where no one really knows what is happening until the last moment, and that’s for the lucky ones.

Getting anywhere near the summit proceedings involves passing though a variety of over-staffed checkpoints manned by a crowd of conscripts and surly officers, followed by a cordon of over-sensitive metal detectors set off by the iron in your blood. One thing no one has paid attention to, however, is my dodgy press card.

The disorder and heavy handedness of Sharm summits often detract from the substance of the talks.

But it’s hard to tell at this stage whether there is any substance to speak of. On September 2, Israel and the Palestinians (well, part of them, since only the Ramallah regime is represented here) resumed direct negotiations in Washington, D.C. at the urging of the United States.

Skeptics far outnumber optimists, and the latter are not wildly so.

In the lobby of the hotel where the talks are due to begin Tuesday morning, I ran into Husam Zaki, the spokesmen for the Egyptian foreign minister.

"We have to be optimists," he told me with a wry grin. "But we know these talks are going to be long and hard."

There is plenty of ground Israeli and Palestinian negotiators will have to cover. The future of Israeli settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. The right of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes. Borders. Security. Water resources. The nature of the nascent Palestinian state.

These are thorny subjects that have been discussed, and dodged, for almost 20 years, and no one is under any illusion that dramatic progress will be achieved here in this sunny Egyptian resort on the Red Sea.

They could start, however, by giving me back my name, my job and returning me to CNN.

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Filed under: Egypt •Israel •Palestinians

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