Inside the Middle East
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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November 7, 2010
Posted: 1826 GMT

It's tough being a rapper in Tehran these days...our Reza Sayah passes on the following:

Police in Tehran have arrested several members of underground Iranian rap groups, the semi-official  ILNA news agency reported.

Tehran Police Chief Hussain Sajedinia told ILNA that several young boys and girls were discovered using vacant homes to record and videotape illegal rap music for various websites and satellite networks.

Police raided the homes, arrested the young musicians and confiscated "western style musical instruments" and several bottles of liquor, according to ILNA.

The report did not specify when the raids took place, how many rappers were arrested, or how old they were.

"These groups use the most trashy, juvenile and street-like words and phrases that have no place in proper grammar," the police chief told ILNA. "More importantly, they have no regard for the law, principles, proper behavior and language."

Police were searching for a girl and several other of the young rappers after identifying them in material found during the search of the vacant homes, ILNA reported.

"A court order has been issued for the arrest of all of the accused and police in Tehran will make their utmost effort to arrest these people," Sajedinia told ILNA.

In Iran, rap and rock music is not a serious crime but is considered un-Islamic. Ignoring the laws against playing rap and rock music can lead to accusations of Satan worship and sentences of flogging or a night in jail.

It's not clear if the young Iranian rappers are still in jail or what they're being charged with.

Sajedinia accused Iran's underground rap scene of spreading profanity and poisoning young minds. He called for an increase in traditional Iranian music to counter the influence of rap music, ILNA reported.

"Those who have been arrested are among those who have veered away from proper behavior, who have distanced themselves from all of life's hardships and are in search of comforts that have no limits," he said.

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November 1, 2010
Posted: 1655 GMT
Mourners outside the Sayidat al-Nejat Church in Baghdad.(Mohammed Tawfeeq/CNN)
Mourners outside the Sayidat al-Nejat Church in Baghdad.(Mohammed Tawfeeq/CNN)

As the sun set over Baghdad, shocked onlookers stood by, watching a truck laden with debris drive away from the Our Lady of Salvation Catholic church.
Silvana Maro stood outside her home near the church, eyes filled with tears, in such shock she could hardly speak. She was a survivor, now plagued by the vivid memory of what she had lived through.
Mass was in process when the attackers stormed in.
“There was gunfire, grenades.  Shrapnel was flying from all sides.  We scattered and threw ourselves to the ground, we didn’t know what would happen to us” She whispered softly, choking on her words.
“They said if anyone lifts their head we will shoot.  My cousin moved slightly.  They shot him, his brains exploded all over”.
Anna Hannow held her aunt’s bloodied purse, the stench of death still fresh.  Her aunt was eighty years old.
“They shot her in the face, there was nothing left of her face” She told us.
As the sun set a coffin was carried in.  A woman sobbed, comforted in vain by another onlooker. Iraqi forces kept the media and bystanders away.
There was a time when Christianity and Islam co-existed peacefully in Iraq, but the Christian community here has not been spared the ravages of the country's sectarian warfare.  Over the years their numbers have dwindled with more choosing to leave every week.

For some staying is the only option.  Others choose to do so out of conviction, refusing to allow violence and threats to drive them from the country they call home.
The attack on Sunday was the first of its kind.  According to the a senior official with the Ministry of Interior, the insurgents first targeted the Baghdad Stock Exchange and blew up two car bombs as a diversion, to draw in the Iraqi unit manning the checkpoints close to the church.
As mass was in full progress – with some 120 worshippers – the attackers, some wearing suicide vests, stormed the building and wreaked carnage. Dozens were killed.
The Islamic state of Iraq, an umbrella organization that includes al Qaeda claimed responsibility. Their demand was the release of prisoners in Iraq and Egypt.  Their statement said the hostage taking was a direct warning to the Egyptian Coptic Church, a response to the case of two Egyptian women allegedly abducted by the Coptic Church after they converted to Islam.
A young man who survived said “They brought us the real Halloween”.
The faces of those we met reflected the extent of the horror their words could not express.

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October 17, 2010
Posted: 502 GMT
Iraqi political cartoon (CNN/Mohammed Tawfeeq)
Iraqi political cartoon (CNN/Mohammed Tawfeeq)

When I first met Abdulrahim Yasser, one of Iraq’s most influential and respected caricature artists, he told me why he decided to help organize and participate in an exhibition highlighting some of Iraq’s best political cartoons and cartoonists.

“I’m trying with all my might to encourage a discussion,” said Yasser at the event’s opening at a Baghdad gallery.  “This exhibition is a discussion with others, it’s a discussion with the Republic, a discussion with those paying attention.”

The show is the biggest one of its kind ever to have been put on in Iraq, and many spectators excitedly explained to me why it was so significant.

“This event is important because it talks about Iraq,” explained Ali Adel.  “About things in Iraq and issues facing Iraq.”

Indeed, the artwork lining the walls depicts so much of what Iraq has been grappling with – everything from the futility of politics to the absurdity of war.  Many attendees continued to remind me how a showcase like this wouldn’t have been possible during Saddam Hussein’s rule, that the existence of such an exhibit is a testament to the freedom of expression that they told me now exists in this country.

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October 15, 2010
Posted: 1516 GMT
A view of the West Bank city of Jericho.
A view of the West Bank city of Jericho.

Editor's note: For more on this story tune in to the next Inside the Middle East show on Wednesday 3 November. Go to the showpage for more detailed showtimes.

Everyone loves a good birthday party until they reach an age when they’d rather forget.   For the West Bank city of Jericho it’s a birthday to be proud of, a milestone no other city in the world has celebrated - 10,000 years .
It’s believed to be the longest continually inhabited place on earth and it’s one of the lowest on earth, skirted by the Dead Sea and the Jordan Valley.
A treat for any historian no matter how amateur, the city boasts one of the first examples of a man-made stone tower …  discovered by a British archeologist in the 1950s, dating back to around 8000 B.C., although its use - whether for religion or security - is unknown.

An eight-meter tower with the world’s oldest known staircase descends from the top - 22 steep, well-worn steps to a tunnel below.
A cable car, opened in 1999, makes quick work of the journey to the summit of the Mount of Temptation, where Jesus is said to have spent 40 days and nights fasting and meditating, resisting the temptations of Satan.
Jericho is already popular for a West Bank city.  The tourism ministry tells CNN one million foreign tourists come every year, as well as 500,000 local visitors.  Only Bethlehem attracts more in the West Bank.
But by celebrating Jericho’s incredible birthday, Palestinian officials are hoping to attract many more.  Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad tells us, “We’ve been around a long time and we intend to do the best we can to stick around until we can live as free people in a country of our own.”
Mr Fayyad was front and center at the birthday celebrations, visiting one of the largest mosaics in the Middle East, unveiled for the occasion.  A 900-square-meter mosaic that is 1,200 years old, and covered by sand and canvas since the 1930s to protect it.
The PM opened a new road named after the late Mahmoud Darwish - considered the Palestinian national poet.  And Mr Fayyad was the first to use a brand new postage stamp designed specifically for Jericho 10,000.
A marathon, open air concert and many other projects contributed to the occasion, although for such a momentous  age, few tourists came.
Khloud Daibes, Palestinian tourism minister said, “Palestine as a destination is a very challenging one … we’re using this occasion to draw attention to the fact it is an exciting destination.”

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Filed under: Archaeology •Culture •Inside The Middle East •Jerusalem •Palestinians •West Bank

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October 14, 2010
Posted: 1518 GMT

The Gulf has one of the fastest-growing and youngest populations in the world. Its countries are also among the top spenders on education, according to an Economist Intelligence Unit report – "The GCC in 2020: The Gulf and its People."

The report highlights a problem that Gulf Countries are acutely aware of: "Rapid population growth will ... create a large pool of labour that may be difficult to absorb into the private sector, owing to mismatches not only of skills, but also of expectations of wages and working conditions. Ongoing education reforms will help, but will not solve these mismatches within the next 10 years."

The Education Project conference in Bahrain sought to address those challenge and others. Bahrain, unlike its wealthier neighbours, is not awash with gas and oil. It knows its future lies in its ability to transition to a post-oil economy. Education will be, participants said,  essential to increase economic diversification and national growth.

CNN's Mohammed Jamjoom moderated the opening debate "What does it mean to be an educated adult in today's knowledge economy?"

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October 13, 2010
Posted: 1545 GMT

I heard them before I saw them.  Canaries happily warbling outside of Hezbollah’s press registration office in Beirut’s southern suburb of Dahieh.

Now, security is tight as always given that this militant Shia political party is considered a terrorist organization by the US and Lebanon’s neighbor Israel.  We fully expected a thorough search, since Iranian president Ahmadinejad is about to give a speech to his supporters in Lebanon’s capital, and Hezbollah believes that there is a constant threat of an attack.

The birds, however, quite unexpected.

“Are they here to detect poisonous gas?” I ask our producer Jomana.

“No it can’t be.” She says.

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October 6, 2010
Posted: 2023 GMT


IOC Chief Jacques Rogge and Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Salam Fayyad at West Bank football match (Mustafa Abu Dayeh/Palestinian Authority PM Office)
IOC Chief Jacques Rogge and Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Salam Fayyad at West Bank football match (Mustafa Abu Dayeh/Palestinian Authority PM Office)

I asked the Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad how it felt to be cheered by thousands of Palestinians while showing off his football skills at al-Ram stadium north of Jerusalem.

The reply… “Wonderful.  Just wonderful.  We should be the ones playing with the players watching.”

 The “we” refers to him and Jacques Rogge, head of the International Olympics Committee on a whirlwind tour of Jordan, the West Bank and Israel.        

They were all suited and booted but from afar their skills looked pretty good.  But you should take into account I only attended my first football match two years ago – again here at Ram stadium, to watch the first ever Palestinian home match on Palestinian soil.

The IOC visit was high-profile and much welcomed by the leadership and fans alike.  The hope is Rogge can bring pressure on the Israeli authorities, who he is also talking to, to allow more freedom of movement for the athletes to attend competitions overseas.

Rogge has invited both sides to a sporting summit in Lausanne, Switzerland, the IOC headquarters to try to improve the status quo.  He told me he himself cannot be political but sport itself has the power of persuasion.

“Sport is a universal language, everyone understands a sports result around the world, the rules of sport are the same in every country in the world and sport brings people together irrespective of their ethnic origin, their culture, their language, their creed, so that’s the value and strength of sport.”

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Filed under: Israel •Palestinians •Sports •West Bank

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September 28, 2010
Posted: 1405 GMT

Driving out of Amman at first light is always an inspiring experience. This morning was no different.

The first flush of mellow amber light awakening fresh life in the sandstone hues of this ancient city. The early hazy dust taking the edge off the seemingly endless urban sprawl of low-cost concrete apartments.

But my focus was already beyond the steep hardscrabble hills flashing past the windows. My thoughts lay about two hundred kilometers further up the road, in Damascus.

Jordanian producer Ranya Khadri had connected me to Khaled Meshaal, the political chief of Hamas. I’d interviewed him three years ago, but now peace talks with Hamas excluded were underway seemed the right time to talk again.

Ranya called Meshaal’s office in Damascus. They wanted to know who would be coming, what we would ask. Two days later, we had a green light for the interview. That was Wednesday.

Now came the hard part, getting Syrian visas for camerawoman Mary Rogers and me. Typically they can take weeks, and, to be newsworthy, we needed the interview by Saturday at the latest.

As Mary and I sat nervously waiting in Ranya’s apartment Friday, the visas finally came through, almost literally at the eleventh hour. So close to midnight, we decided it would be better to grab a few hours sleep and set off early Saturday.

It was to prove the right decision. As I focused ahead, bumping down the highway out of Amman, imagining I’d soon be interviewing the man the United States and Israel call a terrorist leader, I had overlooked one not so small detail.

Crossing in to Syria by road is not like landing at Damascus airport. Sure, you get the same scrutiny and brief holdups at immigration while they search for the telex confirming your visa, but any sense of a speedy process, with new arrivals to be quickly turned loose in the country, seems lost.

Parked up by the border in the now baking sun, time was standing still. Hour upon hour we waited for our camera gear to be checked. We’d faxed the list ahead but it was making little difference. Time was ticking down, no officials seemed to share our sense of urgency, we couldn’t afford to be late.

(CNN's Nic Robertson with Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal)

The only sign of change the years had brought to the stifling customs hall were layers of dust and bureaucracy and we were caught in the middle. Stuck between customs agents and a myriad of intelligence officials. It was a suffocating feeling. We’d come so far, but every hour pushed the interview potentially further out of our grasp.

Finally it came down to one man. An official from two-one-one, military intelligence. He would have to look at our gear and say it was safe to bring in to the country.

After hauling the equipment out for inspection and more than 4 hours at the border we were finally on our way. The man from two-one-one had told us he’d come to our hotel and check the gear once we arrived.

After all the lost time it seemed odd he’d let us drive across country before looking at it. But this was Syria and we were playing by their rules. Our goal was that one interview, nothing else.

The man from two-one-one had barely finished checking the gear and Meshaal’s men were knocking on Mary’s door. They wanted our gear too, only they were going to take it away, along with our passports.

I’ve been through less strict US presidential security before, they’ll let you bring your gear with you, check it out while you watch. Hamas it seemed were working to a higher standard. But at least now it felt that we would finally meet Meshaal.

Mary, who’s been doing this longer than me, was yet to be convinced. Two years ago she told me she’d been through the same drill, even set up her camera for the interview only to be told he couldn’t make it.

Meshaal has every reason to be cautious, a little more than a decade ago Israeli Mossad agents tried to kill him. The poison they used was so strong a backup team carried an antidote. The King of Jordan threatened Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu he’d break off relations if Meshaal, who was dying on a hospital gurney in Amman, was not saved.

Security was clearly on the minds of Meshaal’s men who picked us up from the hotel. It was dark but Damascus’s twisting thoroughfares still crowded with buses and post rush our traffic. They squeezed through impossible gaps at improbable speeds.

When a space tightened too far, they worked their siren. The Syrians only too happy to move from their careening path. On the final turn, I recognized the tree-lined street, it had been fast but I’d felt safe and now we were here.

As Meshaal strode in to the room, his staff all stood up. There is no question who is boss, no question whom they look to for leadership

Precisely 13 years to the day since the Israeli agents had tried to kill him, we were finally meeting Meshaal.

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Filed under: Hamas •Israel •Palestinians

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