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About two weeks ago Julia and I attended the US Global Leadership Council’s annual conference. The day was filled with brilliant speakers, but in the end we both agreed that one of our favorites was Gary Knell, President and CEO of Sesame Working shop. He discussed “Muppet Diplomacy”, the idea that through educational television we can develop nations and encourage a more positive relationship between the U.S. and other nations. As Julia mentioned in an earlier post, this was a refreshing viewpoint on a panel that mostly focused on the direct impact of development on business’ pockets (not so surprising since it was a panel on development’s economic impacts).

Sesame Workshop was founded thirty-eight years ago to help low income children in the U.S. prepare for school. The concept was simple: use television to address the developmental needs of children. Since then, the Sesame Street model has gone global. Sesame Workshop works with 18 countries (Australia, Bangladesh, Brazil, Egypt ,France, Germany, India, Indonesia, Israel, Japan, Jordan, Kosovo, Mexico, Netherlands, Northern Ireland, Palestine, Russia, South Africa ) on locally produced media following the Sesame model. Each production team involves the top educators, researchers, psychologists, child development experts, artists, writers and musicians in their respective countries. Today Sesame Street if the most researched show in history.

What is most interesting about this process is how local productions are using the Sesame model to talk about regionally relevant issues. Rechov Sumsum, the production in Israel features Arab-Israeli and Jewish- Israeli muppets living together in harmony. Alam Simsim, Egypt’s production features a bright young female muppet, Khokha, to promote the empowerment and education of young girls.

South Africa’s Takalani Sesame embodies the spirit of the “rainbow nation” and features muppets that speak with accents that reflect the diversity of the nation. Most notable is Kami, a young female muppet who is HIV positive. As South Africa continues to be devastated by the HIV/AIDS epidemic, the show is attempting to dispel the culture of silence and stigma surrounding the issue.

The name “Kami” comes from the Setswana word “Kamodelo” which means “acceptance.” Kami is a Read the rest of this entry »

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With the December 6 news that it plans to build twenty new uranium enrichment facilities, Iran has dealt a serious blow to hopes of peacefully resolving its nuclear standoff with the West. After months of courtship by the international community, Iran’s announcement appears to be both a rejection of the West’s advances and a signal of its intent to step up its pursuit of a nuclear program. With the US running out of cards to play, many fear that the two countries are on a collision course to military confrontation.

Much like North Korea, the consequences of an Iranian possession of nuclear bomb are dire. The Obama administration has sought to right the wrong of American Cold War policy, when the US provided its then-ally Iran with nuclear reactors in an attempt to curry favor. Preventing proliferation is a priority for the Obama administration and confirmation that Iran has a nuclear bomb would trigger an arms race in the Middle East, with heavyweights such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia seeking to counter Iranian domination in the region. An Iranian nuclear bomb would also bring Israel and Iran closer to war. Iran’s anti-Semitic leader Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has publicised his hatred of Israel so often that Israeli leaders deem a nuclear-armed Iran an existential threat. Just last year an Israeli strike on Iranian nuclear sites was narrowly averted after George W. Bush refused to give Ehud Olmert the green light. The Obama administration has since tried to convince the Israelis of the virtues of diplomacy with Iran, but the latest setback means that hawks in Israel and the US will be circling Iran with greater intensity.

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Only a few days away from the third and final conference in the “Bringing the World Home Series,” and we’re still trying to manage several (ok, one) diplomatic crises.  This conference series, sponsored by AID and POMED (the Project on Middle East Democracy) very successful opened in Amman, Jordan, in mid-April.  Prince Hassan of Jordan and Boutros-Boutros Ghali were honored guests and speakers, participants engaged in productive, exciting dialogue, and the event got excellent pres (which is always nice!).  We then moved to Cairo in early May, where we welcomed Americans and Egyptians from around the world (as far as New Zealand, Bosnia, and Washington DC) as we hotly debated American foreign policy in the region, listened to experts, and ultimately enjoyed a dinner cruise on the Nile.

And then it was back across North Africa to Rabat, Morocco, (where I currently live) to finish up the preparations for the Rabat conference that is to take place May 25-26.  We have a great selection of panelists and qualified youth participants who represent a variety of viewpoints—always makes for interesting dialogue to say the least.  Our three panels are currently on “Talking about Democracy,” “US Democracy Promotion Projects in Morocco,” and “Conflict and Security.”  Recent developments at the US Embassy and Consulate in Morocco, however, may have doomed the appearance of the US Embassy representative scheduled for the third panel—whose presence is currently hanging by a thread—while my co-chair and I sit at the edge of our seats, biting our nails.  Without going into painful and obscure detail, the US Embassy is currently under much scrutiny after a political gaffe (did he misspeak? Or does he truly not recognize Moroccan claims to the Western Sahara) on the part of the American Ambassador in reference to contested territory in southern Morocco (which is a generally obscure conflict for all of the world with the exception of Morocco, Algeria, and the UN).  This coupled with the closing of the US Consulate in Casablanca following a suicide bombing last month, American Government officials in Rabat aren’t Morocco’s favorite people right now; American Government officials claim that the Consulate has yet to open due to security concerns, while many Moroccans have interpreted it as a symbolic statement against the Moroccan population.

In any event, what this means for us is that the Embassy has become very sensitive to media, and after hearing that Al Jazeera wanted to film portions of the conference, they’ve suddenly gotten cold feet.  Understandably.  Yet, we think it’s very important for both a Moroccan and an American Government official to be present to explain official policy.  So, the jury’s still out in regards to the appearance of our US Government official.  I’ll keep you posted.

Laurel Rapp
Rabat, Morocco
Written on May 22

Una’s note: Laurel blogged these a while back, but they didn’t show up, so I’m posting them now. The Cairo conference took place May 3-5.

Report 1.

Bringing the World Home:  An American-Egyptian Youth Dialogue on U.S. Policy

After a two week lull, the second conference in the three-part “Bringing the World Home” series was held this weekend at the American University in Cairo.  Unlike the Amman conference that focused on democratization in Jordan, the Cairo conference was to assess US policy in Egypt and the Middle East.  The evening opening ceremony was open to the public, drawing many Egyptians from the environs and Americans studying at the university. The American contingent was decidedly smaller, bringing about 10 students from around the world (Europe, North Africa, New Zealand, the US) and about five Americans studying abroad in Cairo.

The keynote speaker, Ambassador Sobeeh, spoke very briefly about U.S. policy in the region, more specifically about the state of Israel.  He was somewhat coolly receive by the American participants for his strong, unbalanced words against Israel and his general failure to address U.S. policy outside of its unconditional support of Israel. 

The evening continued with speeches of introduction by sponsoring organizations, including my presentation of AID and a short film the Egyptian delegates prepared on the importance of the conference.  The film was a series of still images, and our initial concern surrounding the film (which initially featured many anti-American images), came to represent a variety of positions.

Report 2.

Cairo Conference Day 2

The first full day of the conference was very intensive—several panels, a lot of discussion in small groups, and informal conversations scattered in between.

Friday kicked off on a good start.  The first panel on “US Democracy Promotion Strategy” was composed of a professor from the American University of Cairo, conference chair Rashad Mahmood, and Saana al-Banna, the great granddaughter of the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood.  After an overview of the six phases of American foreign policy as seen by Prof Lynch, Rashad and Saana discussed impediments to US democracy strategy in the region. 

After the panel, students went off to their small discussion groups to delve deeper into issues covered by the panel.  I attended a rather large group, perhaps 20 Egyptians, 4 Americans.  Clearly, the topic we were to be discussing is INCREDIBLY controversial and difficult.  Unfortunately, some of the Egyptian participants went on the offensive against the outnumbered Americans, lambasting US foreign policy in their region, lamenting the double standards of its policy, and supporting claims with faulty or no evidence.  One 19-year old Egyptian student claimed that because of America’s moral depravity (claiming that most Californians walk around naked all the time—a suspect claim at best, but then again, I’ve never been to CA myself.  Neither has he coincidentally.)  Little to no substantive solutions were offered to complaints (we were charged with preparing policy recommendations stemming from the discussion). The Americans left feeling rather frustrated and upset.   

I found the afternoon panel on “US and Regional Conflicts{“ incredibly interesting. The two panelists—representatives from the US Dept of State and the Egyptian Foreign Ministry, spoke about US involvement in Palestine, Iraq, Afghanistan, and the War in Lebanon this summer.  The American deleaguate was generally optimistic about America’s role in the Middle East, although did admit to concerns about the War in Iraq.  The Egyptian deleguage discussed, among other things, his personal relationship with September 11 (in Washington at the time) and how it changed the world forever and set the US on a new, more aggressive course. 

Afternoon discussions seemed to be generally more productive.  People listened to each other, questioned in a more respectful way.  Many Egyptian participants concurred that the US should stop its support for Israel and begin supporting Arab countries in the region more.   Several Egyptians were concerned with the powerful “Zionist Lobby” in the US, concerned that it did not represent the wishes of the American people.  I and several others responded to this concern—I think there is a general misperception in the Arab world about a) the power of the pro-Israel lobby and; b) the degree to which Israel is supported by the American people.  I would argue that the majority of Americans feel some kinship with Israel as this little chunk of land is the spiritual homeland for a large percentage of America’s population.  I do believe that Americans care what happens to Israel and that it’s partially our responsibility to protect Israel as we were instrumental in its establishment.  In any event, it was important for participants on both sides to hear the mainstream views of Egyptians and Americans, understand that we both hold misconceptions about the other side, and move to a more productive place once these have been debunked. 

The first full day concluded with a talk on Islam from the Bridges Foundation, an organization that organizes educational programs about the true tenants of Islam.

Report 3.

Cairo AID Conference, May 5

Saturday was a full day of debate, discussion, and really delving into the issues we’d been discussing in passing the previous day.  We broke down into smaller groups (about 8), which turned out to be an excellent way to talk about the issues in a non-confrontational way.  Each group offered policy recommendations that were later combined into a list of 35.

After the morning panel on “War of Words,” I gave a presentation on effective international communication.  I had a whole presentation prepared that discussed methods of bringing what you’ve learned home to your communities and presenting it ina way that they will relate to.  After Friday’s events, I realized that we didn’t even know how to really talk to one another and brining the messages home is the second step; the first is communication.  I gave a presentation on the do’s and don’t of communication.  Participants did an exercise that made them stand in the shoes of another; the American participant was the Egyptian Ambassador the US and the Egyptian the American Ambassador.  With this role reversal, the ambassadors were charged in presenting their government’s position, strategic interests, and concerns for its foreign policy.  Participants said that it was a very effective way of understanding the other’s positions and misconceptions of Egypt’s and the US’s interests and goals. 

The afternoon was dedicated to voting on the policy recommendations put forth by small group discussions.   We voted on 35 resolutions ranging from the need for increased cultural exchange programs between the US and the Arab world to the importance of respecting UN resolutions on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.  Participants were welcome to make two amendments to the recommendation, after which point, secret ballot voting occurred.  The votes are now being tabulated, and I look forward to see what passed and what was voted down.

By the end of the two days, progress had been made.  We both understood the others’ positions better, were aware of misperceptions that our counterparts possessed of us, and came together to create and vote on policy recommendations.  Compared to the general harmony of the Amman Conference, Egypt was a bit of a wake-up call in terms of the general hostility towards the US government and Americans.  What was interesting to both sides, I think, was that although we expected to share very little common ground, we happened to agree on many of the issues when we got down to it.  I hope we will bring the lessons learned in Cairo back to our communities and share these messages.

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