06 September 2008

* Suzanne Tamim Killer Arrest (update)

It's the Mideast version of a sordid soap opera. A Lebanese pop star is brutally slain in her luxury Dubai apartment, her throat slashed. Arrested in her death: One of Egypt's most politically connected businessmen, accused of paying $2 million to have her killed.

The killing of Suzanne Tamim has gone beyond a lurid crime story to something more serious -- a glimpse into the close links between Egypt's government and powerful business tycoons long viewed as above the law.
It is also exposing strains between societies like Egypt's, where wealth and political power increasingly go hand in hand, and Dubai, which recently launched a high-profile push against corruption.
People in the Arab world have long followed with fascination and moral clucking the tales of businessmen and politicians cavorting with actresses, belly-dancers and singers -- a sort of Hollywood Babylon in the conservative Muslim Middle East.
But even by those standards, the Tamim drama is a stunner. The 30-year-old singer, famed for her striking green eyes, was found dead in her Dubai apartment in July, with multiple stab wounds and a 20-centimeter (8 inch) slash across her throat.
This week, Egyptian authorities arrested real estate mogul Hisham Talaat Moustafa, said to be Tamim's former lover.
For many, the surprise wasn't Moustafa's alleged involvement -- but his arrest.
Egyptians are widely convinced their government won't touch influential businessmen. When Moustafa's name first appeared in media reports weeks ago, he denied a role and complained on Egyptian television that the rumors hurt the economy. The government promptly banned press reports on the slaying, suggesting that Moustafa was off-limits.
The tycoon is a top ruling party official close to President Hosni Mubarak's powerful son, Gamal. In the past 10 years, he has become one of Egypt's top billionaires, the owner of luxury hotels and beach resorts and a leading force in building Western-style suburbs ringing Cairo for the upper-class.
But on Tuesday, Egypt's public prosecutor accused the tycoon of contracting for the singer's killing by paying $2 million to Mohsen el-Sukkary, a former Egyptian state security officer.
El-Sukkary worked at Cairo's Four Seasons Hotel, owned by Moustafa. The prosecutor said the tycoon helped facilitate visas and tickets for the security man as he trailed the singer first to London, then to Dubai.
The singer had moved to Dubai, friends say, to break off her relationship with Moustafa, who is married. She rose to stardom in the late 1990s but then hit troubled times, separating from her Lebanese husband-manager who filed a series of lawsuits against her.
According to Dubai investigators, el-Sukkary stalked the singer the morning of July 28 to her apartment in the swanky Dubai Marina complex, overlooking the Persian Gulf and a harbor full of yachts. From the lobby, he rang her video intercom, showing her an ID of the management company from which she had recently bought the apartment. She buzzed him in, police say.
Once inside, he stabbed her repeatedly with a knife, then shed his overalls and cap, dumping them in a trash bin outside the building, officials said. They were found by police and tested for DNA. Police say the killer's face also appeared on security camera footage.
"It took 12 minutes for the murderer to enter the building, kill the victim and leave," Maj. Gen. Khamis Mattar Al Mazeina of the Dubai police told a press conference.
The killing was an embarrassment to Dubai, a boomtown trying to shed its reputation as an anything-goes corner of the conservative Muslim Gulf. The emirate has recently cracked down on tourists going topless on beaches, and has launched a public anti-corruption effort.
El-Sukkary was arrested Aug. 6 in Egypt. Dubai police traveled to Cairo to present their evidence against him but then turned their attention to Moustafa.
Egypt's independent Al-Masri Al-Youm newspaper Thursday printed transcripts of alleged phone conversations kept by el-Sukkary and seized by police. In one, Moustafa says "the agreed amount is ready" and tells the security man, "Tomorrow, she is in London and you should act."
In a later tape, el-Sukkary explains he missed his chance in London and "will wait to move it to Dubai." Moustafa chides him then says, "OK, let's finish with this."
A senior Egyptian police official confirmed the transcript, speaking to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because those investigation details had not been released.
 Mubarak and his government have not commented publicly on the case.
But some government critics believe the arrest came only under Dubai pressure. "There was serious pressure from the Gulf," said Abdel-Halim Qandil, editor-in-chief of the independent Sout Al-Umma newspaper and a frequent Mubarak critic.
There also has been growing discontent at home over the clout of businessmen who dominate the government, overshadowing even the military figures who long held the reins of power. Earlier this year, the millionaire owner of a ferry company was acquitted of negligence in the 2005 sinking of a Red Sea ferry that killed 1,000 people, angering many.
Several top businessmen hold Cabinet posts or are on the ruling party's policy committee, headed by Gamal Mubarak, a former investment banker considered the likely successor to his 80-year-old father. Moustafa is a top committee member and also in parliament's upper house.
Beyond the corruption worries, the singer's killing highlighted the gap between Egypt's rich and the largely poor, conservative bulk of its nearly 80 million population.
Rumors abound of businessmen and politicians peddling out actresses and singers in prostitution rings. The frequent marriages and divorces of celebrities and businessmen make big news.
"The mix of sex, money, business and power is the mix that defines the ruling elite now," said Qandil.
He said Moustafa's arrest may signal divisions within the regime between the politician-businessmen and an old guard, including the military, worried over the tycoons' excesses.
The government may tout Moustafa's arrest as a sign businessmen aren't untouchable, he said, but "people ask if Hisham Talaat Moustafa did this, what else is going on?" 

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Lebanon Time-Line

Introducing Lebanon

Coolly combining the ancient with the ultramodern, Lebanon is one of the most captivating countries in the Middle East. From the Phoenician findings of Tyre (Sour) and Roman Baalbek's tremendous temple to Beirut's BO18 and Bernard Khoury's modern movement, the span of Lebanon's history leaves many visitors spinning. Tripoli (Trablous) is considered to have the best souk in the country and is famous for its Mamluk architecture. It's well equipped with a taste of modernity as well; Jounieh, formerly a sleepy fishing village, is a town alive with nightclubs and glitz on summer weekends.

With all of the Middle East's best bits - warm and welcoming people, mind-blowing history and considerable culture, Lebanon is also the antithesis of many people's imaginings of the Middle East: mostly mountainous with skiing to boot, it's also laid-back, liberal and fun. While Beirut is fast becoming the region's party place, Lebanon is working hard to recapture its crown as the 'Paris of the Orient'.

The rejuvenation of the Beirut Central District is one of the largest, most ambitious urban redevelopment projects ever undertaken. Travellers will find the excitement surrounding this and other developments and designs palpable - and very infectious.

Finally, Lebanon's cuisine is considered the richest of the region. From hummus to hommard (lobster), you'll dine like a king. With legendary sights, hospitality, food and nightlife, what more could a traveller want?

Introducing Beirut

What Beirut is depends entirely on where you are. If you’re gazing at the beautifully reconstructed colonial relics and mosques of central Beirut’s Downtown, the city is a triumph of rejuvenation over disaster.

If you’re in the young, vibrant neighbourhoods of Gemmayzeh or Achrafiye, Beirut is about living for the moment: partying, eating and drinking as if there’s no tomorrow. If you’re standing in the shadow of buildings still peppered with bullet holes, or walking the Green Line with an elderly resident, it’s a city of bitter memories and a dark past. If you’re with Beirut’s Armenians, Beirut is about salvation; if you’re with its handful of Jews, it’s about hiding your true identity. Here you’ll find the freest gay scene in the Arab Middle East, yet homosexuality is still illegal. If you’re in one of Beirut’s southern refugee camps, Beirut is about sorrow and displacement; other southern districts are considered a base for paramilitary operations and south Beirut is home to infamous Hezbollah secretary general, Hassan Nasrallah. For some, it’s a city of fear; for others, freedom.

Throw in maniacal drivers, air pollution from old, smoking Mercedes taxis, world-class universities, bars to rival Soho and coffee thicker than mud, political demonstrations, and swimming pools awash with more silicone than Miami. Add people so friendly you’ll swear it can’t be true, a political situation existing on a knife-edge, internationally renowned museums and gallery openings that continue in the face of explosions, assassinations and power cuts, and you’ll find that you’ve never experienced a capital city quite so alive and kicking – despite its frequent volatility.